Thespina (Nina) Yamanis, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor and Assistant Dean for Faculty Affairs at American University School of International Service

March 20, 2024
Headshot of Nina Yamanis

Dr. Thespina (Nina) Yamanis’ career in HIV stems back to her work as an advocate and student activist in college. Dr. Yamanis graduated from the University of North Carolina (UNC) with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and her honors thesis focused on surveying surgeon attitudes toward breast cancer treatments. Initially interested in pursuing a pre-med track, her mentor, Dr. Brenda DeVellis (UNC), suggested she pursue public health instead. Dr. Yamanis spent the next six years working in various positions at an endocrinology lab, rape crisis center, and most notably at Child Protective Services as a social worker.  After working directly with community members, she realized she wanted to work in prevention rather than treatment. Dr. Yamanis says, “At Child Protective Services, I observed a cycle of violence, poverty, and racial inequality that made me realize these things are all connected. I wanted to be part of solutions that have a lasting and sustainable impact on the root causes of violence, poor health, and inequality.” As a result, Dr. Yamanis went back to UNC to earn her Master’s in Public Health and worked with her undergraduate mentor, Dr. DeVellis. During her studies, Dr. Yamanis became interested in the intersection of HIV and violence against women. She also became aware of the overwhelming number of young people in Africa dying from HIV, which in the early 2000s, was due to a lack of access to HIV treatment and the “dual epidemic of HIV and gender-based violence.” She started an advocacy campaign showing the film “A Closer Walk” which focused on raising awareness about the impact of HIV on young women in Africa. Dr. Yamanis continued her studies at UNC and earned her Ph.D. in Health Behavior. She was eager to work alongside a new UNC faculty member, Dr. Suzanne Maman, whose research focuses on the intersection of HIV and violence against women in Tanzania. Dr. Yamanis volunteered for a year and then lived in Tanzania for 8 months to complete her dissertation work on Dr. Maman’s project involving youth and HIV prevention. Dr. Yamanis’ current research continues to focus on HIV prevention in Tanzania.

After graduating from UNC, Dr. Yamanis completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Duke University. She was mentored by Drs. Jim Moody and Giovanna Merli, sociologists who helped her adopt a research strategy she continues to use today. From them, Dr. Yamanis learned how to use a social network approach to measuring and intervening on social norms. This strategy was helpful in her work in Tanzania because the social networks of youth deeply influence their HIV-related behavior and outcomes. After Dr. Yamanis joined the faculty at American University, Dr. Kim Blankenship helped her grow her interest in the social structures associated with HIV and encouraged her to initiate local research. Dr. Yamanis followed this advice, applied, and was awarded a DC CFAR Pilot Award in 2012 entitled “Exploratory Investigation of the Social and Geographic Context of Sexual Risk Behavior, Identity Development and Service Use among Adolescent Black MSM in DC.” Dr. Yamanis then applied for an American University pilot award to work with La Clínica del Pueblo, a federally qualified health center founded in DC in 1983 by Central American refugees to provide low-cost clinical health services to the local Latina/o/x immigrant community in DC and Hyattsville, Maryland, including services along the HIV continuum of care.  This work led to two more grants with La Clínica, including a national CFAR Adelante award.  Adelante funds early-stage investigators to conduct two-year mentored community-based research projects focusing on reducing HIV health disparities among Latina/x/o populations. Dr. Yamanis’ team was selected for the first cohort of Adelante teams and included Dr. Suyanna Barker of La Clínica and her research mentor, Dr. Maria Cecilia Zea of George Washington University.

Dr. Yamanis’ current HIV-related work focuses on two different communities. First, she continues her work in Tanzania through her R21 entitled, “A pilot social network intervention to reduce HIV and IPV among adolescent girls." This project involves looking at the influence of social networks on adolescent girls and young women and using networks to intervene and change social norms and reduce HIV acquisition.1 She says, "This work encompasses economic empowerment as a form of HIV prevention.” The intervention combines livelihood training and cash grants (cash plus), a common social protection mechanism in Africa, with social norms change and HIV prevention information for young women. The idea of this intervention is that if women are more economically empowered and have more resources, they are less likely to engage in transactional sex, decreasing their risk of acquiring HIV. Second, her work in Washington, DC focuses on the impact of immigration status on Latino/x men who have sex with men (MSM) and Latina/x transgender women. Dr. Yamanis’ research was the first to document that immigration status affects fear of deportation and access to healthcare for Latino/x2, and that being undocumented was associated with depressive symptoms among transgender women.3 “We found that when transgender women change their legal status to be documented, they can change their names to match their gender identity. They can get work and leave abusive partners. A lot of structural determinants of HIV risk are diminished through legal relief.” Her Adelante project found that it was feasible to integrate immigration legal services into an HIV prevention package for Latina/o/x sexual and gender minority populations.4 Her work in both Tanzania and Washington DC serves the purpose of empowering and providing greater freedom to individuals, reducing barriers to good health.

As the Co-Core Director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Core of the DC CFAR, the lead of the MACC/Latinx working group, and the incoming CFAR Adelante Scientific Officer, Dr. Yamanis hopes to incorporate more community-led and community-engaged approaches into HIV research. Through her various projects, Dr. Yamanis has seen that community organizations are leaders in recognizing the needs of the communities that they serve, and she understands her job as a researcher is to follow their lead. She says, “The community holds us accountable; they see the problems daily.” Researchers can benefit from listening and following up on the priorities identified by community organizations. “Trust [between community organizations and researchers] is required to make a change, but change is possible when both sides are willing to put in the effort.”



  1. Yamanis, T.J., Mulawa, M.I., Kilonzo, M.N. et al. Reaching Out-of-school Adolescent Girls and Young Women at Risk for HIV Through Their Social Networks. AIDS Behav (2023).
  2. Yamanis, T.J., del Río-González, A.M., Rapoport, L., Norton, C., Little, C., Linhales Barker, S. and Ornelas, I.J. Understanding Fear of Deportation and Its Impact on Healthcare Access among Immigrant Latinx Men Who Have Sex with Men, LeBlanc, A.J. and Perry, B.L. (Ed.) Sexual and Gender Minority Health (Advances in Medical Sociology, Vol. 21), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 103-131 (2021).
  3. Yamanis, T., Malik, M., Del Río-González, A.M., Wirtz, A.L., Cooney, E., Lujan, M., Corado, R., Poteat, T. Legal Immigration Status is Associated with Depressive Symptoms among Latina Transgender Women in Washington, DC. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health (2018).
  4. Yamanis, T.J., Zea, M.C., Ramé Montiel, A.K. et al. Immigration Legal Services as a Structural HIV Intervention for Latinx Sexual and Gender Minorities. J Immigrant Minority Health 21, 1365–1372 (2019).