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International Health

Faculty Profile

Larissa Jennings, PhD, MHS

Assistant Professor, International Health 
Social & Behavioral Interventions Program

Assistant Professor Larissa Jennings is a behavioral scientist who studies how improving socio-economic status affects people’s health behavior and their risk of disease. Her work also investigates how programs to reduce poverty can be designed to help people improve their health.

Larissa Jennings

Larissa Jennings, center, working in Kenya on a project to help reduce HIV
transmission among young people living in underserved urban areas. 
She is seated between Monica Nguata and Simeon Kintu, two graduate
students from the University of Nairobi who assisted in data collection.

This fall, Jennings will launch an NIH-funded project she leads to help homeless young adults in Baltimore City achieve financial stability and reduce their risk of HIV infection. Research has shown that homeless and unemployed youth have disproportionately high rates of HIV infection. The EMERGE Project (Engaging MicroenterprisE for Research Generation and Health Empowerment) will pair 40 homeless youth with mentors from trades or businesses they are interested in. The study will provide entrepreneurial training classes and business start-up grants, along with HIV educational workshops. “We might end up pairing one of the young people with an established barber, for example. The small grant could then be used for courses, licensing fees, supplies or equipment. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for formerly homeless youth to pursue their career goals,” explains Jennings. Participants will also receive text messages to promote safer sexual practices and other healthy behaviors. “I hope this will be a model for addressing both the health and financial needs of vulnerable youth worldwide.”

Jennings recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya, where she was working on a study to help reduce HIV transmission among young people living in low-income urban settlements. The project, funded by the Johns Hopkins Center for AIDS Research, investigates how financial insecurity affects individuals’ uptake of biomedical and behavioral practices known to reduce risk of HIV infection. The study examined HIV testing behaviors, sexual discounting, intimate partner violence, and several economic factors in over 350 urban settlement youth.

One of the goals of the study was to additionally test the feasibility of respondent-driven sampling, a new chain-referral strategy to identify hard-to-reach youth. Traditional methods to find study participants—such as conducting home visits or working with youth organizations and schools—often miss underserved youth who are harder to find because they may be out-of-school or unstably housed. Respondent-driven sampling, on the other hand, starts by identifying a few of the most at-risk youth to interview. Afterwards, they are asked to refer people like themselves to participate in the study. “We are testing how safely and efficiently this strategy can work. Our findings may help future public health studies better identify at-risk youth.”  

This summer, Jennings will be traveling to Paris, France, to present findings from both her Nairobi  and Baltimore studies at the International AIDS Society’s 9th Annual Conference on HIV Science. In the 2017-2018 academic year, she'll be teaching a course on qualitative research methods and leading a doctoral seminar on economic-strengthening interventions for sexual and reproductive health.