Jenny Trinitapoli, PhD
Associate Professor Department of Sociology
The University of Chicago

Effective May 2021, Jenny Trinitapoli, PhD will begin her term as director of the Third Coast CFAR Developmental Core. Dr. Trinitapoli is an NICHD-funded social demographer and associate professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. Her elevation to the Developmental Core director role was planned in the CFAR’s 2019 renewal application, after a one-year transition period with Dr. John Schneider.

This evolution supports the CFAR’s strategic plan to expand the scientific expertise of the center’s leadership and to create new opportunities for cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional collaborations. Dr. Schneider will enhance his contributions to the overall direction of the Third Coast CFAR through his continued role on the Steering Committee and as the University of Chicago PI for the CFAR.

We recently sat down with Dr. Trinitapoli to discuss her research and new role within the CFAR:

Tell us about your professional background.
I received my PhD in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin and held faculty positions at Arizona State University and The Pennsylvania State University before joining the University of Chicago. At UT I was an NICHD-trainee at the Population Research Center (that’s when demography became a core part of my intellectual identity), and I’ve been affiliated with population centers and institutes at ASU, Penn State, and now Chicago. As a scholar of population dynamics, much of my work sits at the intersection of social science and medicine.

The TLT research centre’s team managing paperwork at the end of a long day.

What’s the focus of your research?
My training is in two areas: social demography & the sociology of religion. Bridging these two fields, my work features the demographer’s characteristic concern with data and denominators and an insistence on connecting demographic processes to questions of meaning. I’ve written extensively on the role of religion in the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, with most of my work situated in southern Malawi. Since 2008 I have been the principal investigator of Tsogolo la Thanzi (TLT)—an ongoing longitudinal study of young adults in Malawi. Demographers use terms like “relationship instability” and “fertility trajectories,” but very plainly: TLT asks how young adults negotiate relationships, sex, and childbearing with a severe AIDS epidemic swirling around them. The TLT research centre in Balaka is supported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; the research team involves collaborators at Malawian and US-based institutions: in particular, Sara Yeatman, Abdallah Chilungo, Emily-Smith Greenaway, Winford Masanjala, Gowokani Chirwa, Angela Chimwaza, Hazel Namadingo, and Sydney Lungu.

The TLT research centre team recruiting respondents in the field.

What do you hope your research will achieve?
My work represents an ongoing effort to shed light on the complicated relationship between HIV and other dimensions of social life, especially fertility, family, and religion. I look at HIV from a population lens, which has a distinct set of questions and answers from the clinical research. By focusing on the larger processes in a general population, we can see how HIV is connected to family formation, in particular. Peak HIV incidence in Malawi overlaps almost exactly with the period of peak fertility. So the risks of contracting HIV and becoming pregnant are synchronized in young people’s lives; behaviors like abstinence, coital frequency, condom use, and breastfeeding affect both HIV risk and fertility outcomes. By generating a clear understanding of the links – big and small – I’m contributing to a knowledge base that will help people safely achieve their reproductive goals regardless of their HIV status.

What are you looking forward to in your new CFAR role?
Research is inherently collaborative. As director of the development core, I’ll be working to forge and sustain connections between scholars across the Chicago area. Since most of my previous research on HIV has been internationally based, I’ve had to study up on all the scholarship and community-based work in our own city; there’s a lot of innovative work to get excited about. Boosting early-stage projects through pilot-grant awards is the best part of the development director’s job; mentoring young scholars through the proposal generating process is another best part.

Dr. Trinitapoli directs the Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR) at the University of Chicago. Trinitapoli’s research on religion has appeared in The American Sociological Review, Social Forces, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, The British Medical Journal, and Demographic Research, among other outlets.  Her book Religion and AIDS in Africa (with Alexander Weinreb) has been called “the first comprehensive empirical account of the impact of religion on the AIDS epidemic.”