PhD Student Yohansa Fernandez Awarded Brown R25 Fellowship

PhD student Yohansa Fernández has been awarded the prestigious Brown R25 Fellowship, which will fund and further her research on HIV testing practices among Latina sex workers. Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and hosted by Brown University and Miriam Hospital, the highly competitive fellowship program focuses on clinical research in the fields of HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, mental illness, correctional health, global health, and health disparities. The fellowship, geared towards developing research skills, will complement Fernández’s doctoral studies by providing didactic training in clinical research methods, as well as provide collaborative structured mentoring with NYU Silver School of Social Work Professor Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, director of the PhD program.

Fernández was inspired to begin her research project after a literature review revealed a dearth of existing research on the sexual health/HIV testing practices of female sex workers of Latin descent. This lack of research was extremely troubling to Fernández given that the Caribbean (home to several Latin countries including the Dominican Republic) has the second-highest HIV prevalence rate outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Approximately 85 percent of current Caribbean HIV/AIDS cases have been identified in the Dominican Republic. And the link between the country’s tourism-heavy environment and its prevalence of sex workers, Fernández learned, facilitates HIV transmission contact rates.

Fernández’s project will seek to explore existing HIV testing practices among this population, especially sex workers from the Dominican Republic, as well as identify impediments to regular testing. Stigma against sex workers is systemic and insidious, occurring not only within the community “but also from the testing providers, and this stigma impedes their HIV testing practices.” Fernández plans to use her fellowship to create a pilot study in which she will design measures “to get sex workers into regular testing.”

The federally funded research grant provides support for its recipients over two years, and includes a scholarship for two summer research courses at Brown University. Upon completing these courses and returning to NYU, Fernández will receive scholarship support for travel to scientific meetings, additional research training in collaboration with New York University, and potential pilot project funding.

Of the award, Fernández shared, “I’m very excited, because the fellowship is more of a collaboration to support my studies at NYU. Having two rigorous, renowned institutions supporting me in my interests is surreal. I’m really excited about the opportunities to come, and for building and developing relationships between NYU and Brown. Hopefully that will lead to further collaborative opportunities.”