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Sommer Scholars

Virginia Fonner

PhD Student, International Health

Virginia Fonner joined the Peace Corps in 2006, fully expecting to apply to medical school when that two-year commitment ended. But after working in rural Zambia as an HIV community mobilizer, she realized that her passion was in public health and disease prevention. “I was astounded that I was much more excited about preventing diseases than treating [sick] people,” she says. When Fonner returned to the U.S., she sought out public health graduate programs that focused on social and behavioral aspects of public health, and chose Johns Hopkins because of the research projects the professors were engaged in. Here, she saw the amazing breadth of possible areas of public health study, but still her focus was HIV. “In all of my courses, I kept writing papers about HIV,” she says. “I realized that’s where I wanted to devote my career.” Fonner now is studying factors that affect partner communication about HIV. She and colleagues are creating an HIV-prevention center in Tanzania where local residents get tested. If they're positive or identified as high risk, they'll receive referral cards to give to sexual partners, urging them to get tested too. Partners who are referred to the center for testing will receive a small incentive, such as a bar of soap or mosquito net. Fonner plans to study how these incentives and other factors affect who is ultimately tested for HIV. "I'd like to help vulnerable people change their lives for the better," she says. 32: Number of funerals Fonner attended during two years in the Peace Corps for people who died from HIV and other communicable diseases