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Interview with Health Sciences Librarian Sarah Hughes

January 30, 2024

Myleah Herbert, Drexel Libraries’ Marketing and Communications Assistant Co-op, sat down with Health Sciences Librarian Sarah Hughes to chat about her role at Drexel and the upcoming National Library of Medicine traveling exhibit, AIDS, Posters, and Stories of Global Health: A People’s History of a Pandemic.

Q: Briefly, what’s your job? How does your role support Drexel students, faculty & staff?

Headshot of Sarah Hughes wearing glasses in front of black backdrop.I work within the Drexel Libraries’ Health Sciences team and support undergraduate nursing programs, the College of Medicine, and the biology department [at Drexel]. One of the major goals of my position is to advance initiatives related to health and biomedical sciences with students and faculty at Drexel. I am developing tutorials and learning objectives that aid in building student metaliterary skills and general knowledge and I also provide consultation services for faculty and students, including help with course-related assignments and critical thinking skills. 


Q: I understand you’re also working with several of our colleagues to bring an AIDS poster exhibit from the National Library of Medicine to Drexel. Could you tell me about that exhibit and the importance of public health messaging?

The National Library of Medicine has offered traveling exhibits on multiple topics over the years. At one of my previous institutions, we had one [exhibit] that was about DNA and beer, and    I think [the topics covered in the AIDS exhibit] are especially very important and timely given the world that we’re living in during the on-going SARS CoV2 pandemic, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19.

This [exhibit] is an interesting parallel [to COVID] in the sense that, in the late 1970s into the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was unfolding and there was a lot of confusion about the virus. In the beginning, [scientists] were just scratching the surface to understand the virus and the disease it caused—asking questions like “Why were certain people seemingly more impacted than others?” But at the same time, everyone was susceptible to HIV, so it took many, many years to get a full understanding of how the virus was transmitted, acknowledging the disease and the clinical ramifications.

When people visit the exhibit, they will learn that a lot of the effort to stop the virus came from the people who were infected with the virus or who knew people who were infected with the virus and succumbed to AIDS. The exhibit shows the importance of activism and the creative community efforts to really force public health leaders to really acknowledge the virus—not ignore it. [Visitors] will also see that community members really did a lot of the work to highlight HIV/AIDS, and it took years of activism before [AIDS] was truly acknowledged and taken seriously. And as time passed, there was more incentive and desire to figure out ways to treat [patients] and develop medications, which have evolved from the 1980s into the present. It shows how activism led to advances that happened over time, and now people with HIV/AIDS can live a relatively normal lifespan due to the advances in antiviral medications.

[Going back to COVID], I think the parallel that I make to the current situation with the SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] pandemic is that we're still in the beginning period of understanding what this virus does. There's already evolving studies and literature out there, but unfortunately, there are also people who have still not fully recovered from their infection.

That said, we’re already seeing activism around COVID-19. On January 18, 2024, people with Long COVID were invited to speak at a Senate Committee Meeting. These are people who have suffered from Long COVID, or have children who have it, and they’re trying to make people more aware of it and to convince Congress to investigate treatments and prevention of this growing problem. We need to think about ways to move forward in our society, to limit the number of infections that people get with this virus. I think there are some comparisons to be made between these two diseases, and it will be interesting to see over the years how this pandemic evolves. Maybe in 20 years there will be a traveling exhibit about the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and how we reacted to it.

Q: Tell me more about the importance of public health messaging, especially with diseases that are not widely known.

With any public health crisis, it's usually the activists and the community that force government leaders and public health officials to really acknowledge the problem. If people aren't reporting these issues, then no one thinks there is anything going on.

[For example,] people have been infected with what we call Long COVID, where they're having these issues months and years after they have the acute infection, and they don't fully understand what's happening to them. It's really activists that are forcing public health leadership to really acknowledge problems that are going on in society.

Another example: in the 1980s Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was a very big initiative that came from parents whose children were injured or unfortunately killed by drunk drivers. We’ve also seen activism and public health messages about many other common issues work and work well, from wearing seat belts, to sunscreen to prevent skin cancer, or wearing a helmet when you're on a bicycle---all very simple measures that you and I maybe take for granted because now they're just common sense.

Q: I was fortunate enough to have a sneak peek at some of the posters featured in the exhibit, and I noticed that a lot of them have a more personal touch. Do you feel like there are any parallels between COVID-19 messaging and the use of those more personal posters from the HIV/AIDS epidemic?

It's interesting because, at the height of the AIDS crisis, there was no Internet. The graphics on the cartoons and those posters that are featured at this exhibit are really fascinating to look at. But really, they [were created to] capture the community’s attention with these short visual reminders that you can look at quickly and be reminded of the ways to prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS—they highlight things like wearing a condom, practicing safe sex, and testing. As for the current visual messaging with COVID-19, I think a lot of the things that I've been seeing are mostly on social media, like people putting together short tweets or images, short videos, that show how the SARS-CoV-2 virus is transmitted.

I think more (in my opinion at least) of the messaging about this current virus is a little bit more honest with the help of community activists versus general messaging coming from our current public health leaders. I think [the exhibit shows] that [public health messaging] works. It’s very impactful and it works to kind of reminds people about the virus, and those messages will ultimately push public health leadership and government officials to acknowledge what's going on. I hope we can learn a lesson from the past and move forward a little bit quicker in terms of saving people from disability and death from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Q: That's a great segue into this next question! What do you hope students and other visitors get out of visiting the exhibit?

I think it's a really wonderful exhibit and one that you can appreciate from the perspective of many different disciplines. [Faculty and students] who are in the visual arts or graphic design at Westphal can appreciate the visual aspects of these posters, or even someone who works in marketing can see the ways that the activists tried to bring awareness about these issues to the public.

You don't have to study public health or practice medicine to appreciate the exhibit. I think it's kind of just a sensitive issue that in the sense that these were people's lives--these weren't just statistics. These were humans who really suffered [from the disease] and were minimized and ignored for many, many years. When you speak to people who were living during that period, whether it be friends or family, or the medical providers who were dealing with the early wave of people that contracted HIV, they're still somewhat haunted by it. Their friends or family suffered needlessly, and many of them were ignored and not taken seriously.

Another thing we’ve incorporated into this exhibit is a resource guide with supporting information and links with resources available through the Drexel Libraries. You’ll find books, articles, and videos related to this topic, including a wonderful documentary that was nominated for an Oscar several years ago called How to Survive A Plague. [The documentary] chronicles the very early period of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and shows the struggle that the community activists had to go through to get attention drawn to this disease. We’re hosting a free screening of the film in early March if you want to come out and watch it, or its available through our collections.

I also wanted to point out that The Legacy Center (through the College of Medicine) graciously let us post a few video interviews with Drexel faculty in the College of Medicine who were completing their residency during the 1980s. They spoke about what they observed as new doctors with having to treat patients that had HIV/AIDS and how it impacted them [professionally and personally]. Some of them were also in the LGBTQ community, so they certainly took it personally. I think it's worth watching some of those interviews to hear the perspective from Drexel faculty about that period and the importance of not forgetting and acknowledging these individuals who contracted the virus and the multitude of people who succumbed to the virus.

Q: So, you briefly mentioned one health or medicine resource for students or other Drexel members. What else would you recommend as a resource for those who are interested in HIV/AIDS research?

Well, Students and Faculty have access to any of the databases that we have in the library! We have a full host of resources at the library with medical information. For example, PubMed, point of care tools such as DynaMed, or databases like Web of Science, and more resources that anyone, if they want further information, can go in and search for information about HIV/AIDS. But of course, anyone is more than welcome to reach out to anyone on the Health Science team if they need help finding information.