Feb 272012
Authors: Kate Winkle

Irene Vernon was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the 1970s when HIV first began to rear its ugly head, but it wasn’t until years later when she saw a PSA about a Native American woman who had contracted the virus that she became involved in AIDS research.

“I initially thought, ‘I’m a woman and a Native American; this (HIV epidemic) has nothing to do with me. But once I got into the field, I’ve never gone back,” said Vernon, professor and chair of CSU’s Ethnic Studies Department and assistant to the dean of Liberal Arts.

Throughout her 16-year career working in the field of health, Vernon has engaged in research focused on the effects of HIV/AIDS on Native Americans, has sat on dynamic HIV/AIDS committees and has also been involved with teaching and outreach.

Her book, “Killing Us Quietly: Native Americans and HIV/AIDS,” which was published in 2001, is considered the definitive work on the effect of HIV/AIDS on Native American populations.

“It’s important to me to raise certain issues and get care and medical help to those who need it and make sure families and those impacted have support,” she said.

Now Vernon has been selected to serve on the Colorado HIV/AIDS Care and Prevention Coalition, which was created by Gov. Bill Ritter in 2008 to advise the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), according to the Coalition 101 handbook.

“I love it,” Vernon said. “I’m about to start new research, and have to focus how I juggle it all. I love what I do; it’s more about organizing my time than a burden.”

The Coalition’s mission “is to serve as an expert resource providing advice and information to CDPHE on issues, trends, needs and resources pertaining to HIV/AIDS in the promotion of effective HIV prevention and care programs,” according to the handbook.

“(The coalition members) are a select group of individuals who have committed themselves in the fight against HIV/AIDS and to bring education to the state as well as support for many who live with the disease,” said Martha Burnside, a research associate for CSU’s ethnic studies department who has served on the coalition for the past three years. Burnside also recommended Vernon to fill her seat on the coalition.
Although this is the first time Vernon will be extensively involved in Colorado HIV/AIDS work, she feels that her skills, knowledge and career preparation will help her bring a fresh eye to work on the coalition. Burnside agrees that Vernon’s experience is key.

“Irene has been a mentor for me since coming to CSU over 10 years ago,” said Burnside in an email to the Collegian. “She continues to set a precedence for students and staff alike as it relates to diversity and the underrepresented populations struggle to be heard, especially in health disparities.”
“I’m excited to work alongside many people who’ve been working in the field a long time,” Vernon added. “I’m just excited about everything — I’m excited about my work; I’m excited about this [opportunity].”

Collegian writer Kate Winkle can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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