10 Inspiring Emory Stories from 2019

An Emory student interacts with children at Camp PEACE

Emory’s mission is to “create, preserve, teach and apply knowledge in the service of humanity.” Throughout the year, the university community takes that mission to heart.

Here are 10 stories of students, alumni, faculty and families who inspired us through their courage, creativity and compassion in 2019.


Emory Eye Center physicians are making a difference to Syrian refugees in Jordan.

When Emory Eye Center cornea specialist Soroosh Behshad kept seeing news stories and social media posts about the hardships and trials of Syrian refugees, particularly children, he knew he wanted to use his career as an ophthalmologist to effect a positive change not only in his own community, but internationally as well.

Since January 2017, he has traveled every few months to Jordan to provide surgical and clinical eye care for Syrian refugees living in refugee camps there.

Behshad collaborated with Emory Eye Center pediatric ophthalmologist Natalie Weil to establish a program to screen and treat pediatric amblyopia, known as “lazy eye,” in children there. Left untreated, the condition can lead to irreversible blindness.

When in Jordan, Behshad and Weil see hundreds of patients each day over a week-long period, treating a variety of eye problems, and perform 20 to 30 eye surgeries per day. Their biggest reward comes from seeing what a life-changing difference care can make for some patients.

“Many patients walk into the clinic dependent on their family members to help them navigate due to their poor vision," Behshad says. “The day after surgery they’re able to get around safely because their vision is restored. That, and the huge smiles on their faces when they learn we’ve traveled all the way from America to treat them, is priceless.”

An Emory physician in blue scrubs talks with a young Syrian girl wearing an eye patch


Children affected by violence find solace at Camp PEACE, with help from an Emory student.

At first glance, the summer camp classroom seems like a typical space for preschool or elementary age children: soft music plays through an old laptop, slightly battered tables and chairs await hands-on activities.

But smaller details in the room prove this place, this program, is different. 

The Word of the Week written on bright-colored construction paper is “empathy.” The Word of the Summer is “resilient.” A mirror propped against the back wall proclaims “You are beautiful.” 

Welcome to Camp PEACE, a program of the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence in Decatur, where children are taught ways to tap into their emotions and find constructive ways to express themselves.

Sophomore Dayra Leal Sanchez spent her summer teaching at Camp PEACE, a program for children impacted by violence. She was one of 13 Emory Scholars who worked with local nonprofits through Emory’s Scholarship and Service Program.

An Emory student holds a child on her lap while sitting in a circle with other children


Epilepsy took away Ja'lisa Thomas’ ability to work and drive. A radical new treatment delivered at Emory Brain Health Center gave Thomas her life back.

Epilepsy is characterized by recurrent seizures. “Seizures are caused by an abnormal occurrence of electrical activity and can lead to behavioral manifestations,” explains Emory neurosurgeon Robert Gross, who treated Thomas.

The seizures made it impossible for her to have a job or to drive. Thomas tried multiple medications to control her seizures but none of them seemed to help.

That’s where Gross and the neurosurgery team at Emory came in. After video-monitoring Thomas’ seizures to locate the areas of the brain where they were occurring, Gross used his laser ablation technique to physically destroy the seizure-causing brain tissue.

Thomas is just one of the patients profiled in “Your Fantastic Mind,” a compelling television series created through a partnership between Emory University and Georgia Public Broadcasting, with support provided by Southern Company Charitable Foundation.

A portrait of Ja'lisa Thomas


President Jimmy Carter offers inspiring insights on peace and politics — plus his candid opinion of almond butter.

For 38 years, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has joined first-year Emory students for the annual Carter Town Hall, a spirited, surprisingly candid exchange that offers firsthand lessons in life, leadership and governance gleaned across a lifetime of public service.

In September, days before his 95th birthday, the global humanitarian returned to campus for the popular, time-honored tradition — deftly fielding a variety of student-submitted questions, ranging from the political and personal to, naturally, the peanut-centric.

Speaking to nearly 2,000 mostly first-year students, Carter transformed the Woodruff Physical Education Center into the largest classroom on campus, slipping easily into his role as Emory University Distinguished Professor, a position he’s held since 1982.

Carter’s unifying message — a call for peace building, public service and political engagement — bridged the generations, drawing cheers from an enthusiastic young crowd that seemed to welcome his words amid a national climate roiled by political divisions.

As president, Carter said he “tried to do what I thought was best for other people, one of those was to promote human rights, the other was to keep peace” — something anyone can aspire to within their own communities.

President Carter speaks at a podium with an Emory flag by the side


It started with T-shirts. Now the brainchild of four Emory public health students has become a voice for reducing racialized health disparities.

Saddened by the recurring reports of police violence against black people and inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Paulah Wheeler 16MPH designed shirts emblazoned with the words “Black Health Matters.”

She had them printed for herself and the other board members of the Association of Black Public Health Students (ABPHS) with the intent of sparking a conversation on campus about racism-fueled health disparities. They did.

Wheeler had met her fellow T-shirt wearers — Mercilla Ryan-Harris 16MPH, Khadijah Ameen 16MPH, and Matthew McCurdy 16MPH — within her first few weeks at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health. All four joined ABPHS.

The foursome quickly bonded over a shared passion for improving health outcomes for black people and even joked about forming a consulting company. The response to their Black Health Matters T-shirts made them think such a venture was perhaps not a joke.

As they brainstormed, Black Health Matters was shortened to BLKHLTH. Today the organization is dedicated to improving the health and wellness of the black community.

It posts articles, blogs and podcasts on its website, It consults and collaborates with other local organizations that engage with the black community. It puts on community health education events. And it conducts workshops to train the current and future health workforce on the role of racism in perpetuating health disparities.

This agenda is even more impressive when you consider that Wheeler, Ryan-Harris, Ameen and McCurdy are doing this in their spare time. All have demanding full-time jobs in public health, working for the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Public Health Sciences Institute at Morehouse College. 

So when do they do all the work necessary to run BLKHLTH? “Pretty much every minute we are not at work,” says Ameen. “We can do that because we all love it. And we believe we are filling a need.”

Students wearing Black Health Matters t-shirts talk in a group


Five years after Emory chose care over fear, Ebola patients returned to mark the milestone.

On Aug. 2, 2014, Kent Brantly stepped from an ambulance and slowly made his way into Emory University Hospital, becoming the first person with Ebola virus disease treated in the United States.

On Aug. 2, 2019, Emory welcomed Brantly and fellow missionary and Ebola patient Nancy Writebol back to campus as the university reaffirmed its commitment to fighting Ebola and other infectious diseases around the world.

At a time when little was known about caring for these patients, the university’s Serious Communicable Diseases Unit (SCDU) successfully treated those with Ebola, creating protocols that are now the standard for deadly infections.

As they marked the five-year milestone, Brantly and Writebol returned to tour the SCDU with their families. “It is a real blessing to be able to walk into this place five years later and see the faces of the people who took care of me, hug them and tell them thank you again,” Brantly said.

With Ebola still very much a threat, Emory’s team of researchers and infectious disease experts is translating the learnings from 2014 to everyday patient care and working to find game-changing therapies for the disease.

A nurse wearing personal protective equipment


He lost his father on 9/11. Now he’s the first beneficiary of an Emory scholarship for those most affected by the tragedy.

As a child of 9/11, Emory student Alec Russin knows both private pain and public scrutiny. His father exists for him primarily in photographs and treasured stories: This good-natured man who loved chocolate, telling jokes and sports of every stripe.

His dad, Steven H. Russin, was working on the 104th floor of the North Tower at the World Trade Center, where he served as a securities trader for the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald, when the first plane struck.

His mom, Emory College graduate Andrea Shindelman Russin, became a single parent to three young children: Alec, then age 2, and twin daughters Olivia and Ariella, born four days after their father’s death. In the midst of unimaginable grief, she received a letter from Emory, expressing the university’s deep sympathies and vowing to support any student admitted to Emory who was the child of an alumni victim or spouse.

Last year, Alec became the first recipient of the Cohen 9/11 Scholarship, supported by William L. Cohen 64C.

“Back then, there was a village that emerged, and Emory became part of that village, standing by us,” Andrea Russin recalls. “Emory has always shown its commitment to its community. Once you are a student, you are always a part of the Emory family.”

A portrait of Alec Russin and Andrea Shindelman Russin


Jerry Grillo was writing a story for Emory about brain research. Then he had a stroke and became a patient himself.

A few minutes before 7 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2018, as writer Jerry Grillo was watching an episode of “Seinfeld” with his wife and son, the laugh-track faded sharply, giving way to the shrill buzz of what felt like electric bees deep inside his right ear, a sudden sonic swarm, the sound of a brain starving to death.

Grillo was having a cerebellar stroke. A trip to the hospital emergency room and a stay of several days followed, along with a camera down his throat, the discovery that he had a hole in his heart, the tangible realization he could have died — and his second MRI in two weeks.

The first MRI came as Grillo, a freelance writer, was working on a story for Emory about the Emory Healthy Aging Study. The plan was to undergo an MRI procedure so he could write about the study while going through what a typical participant would.

Read his compelling first-person account of his stroke and recovery, as the writer becomes the story.

Jerry Grillo plays the guitar in his living room with his wife and son


Leaders in business, education, faith and community service, the alumni in this year's class of 40 Under Forty are already making an impact.

Were it not for the financial crisis in 2008, Taos Wynn 06Ox 09C and his Perfect Love Foundation may never have impacted more than 6,000 lives in the past 18 months alone.

In fact, Wynn’s philanthropic plans and future may have been greatly thwarted by his original intent to pursue a career on Wall Street; a decision he still contemplated with the financial markets crashing nearly six months before his graduation in 2009.

But as he graduated from college, thoughts of Wall Street and other financial prospects were drying up. As classmates were having their job offers rescinded, Wynn took time off pursuing a secondary passion of music and later joining mission trips to both Haiti and India. While there, the combination of devastation and poverty coupled with his parents’ prior influence of giving back to the community made him reconsider his path in life.

When he arrived back in Atlanta, he and a small group of friends began preparing sack lunches to serve to unsheltered men and women throughout Atlanta. Wynn continued similar efforts of distributing food, blankets and clothing to underserved citizens. Then in 2013, after filing for non-profit status, Wynn officially launched the Perfect Love Foundation.

“Originally we just wanted to love people and do good in the community,” says Wynn, a 2017 Millennial of the Year and recipient of the Outstanding Georgia Citizen Award. “Now that intent to do good has evolved into much more including the ability to equip the next generation of leaders and making generational impact.”

Meet Wynn and the other members of Emory’s 2019 class of 40 Under Forty, representing the very best in achievement and impact across the diverse community of Emory's young alumni.

A collage of 40 Under Forty honorees


Emory professor Jericho Brown gives new language to issues of fatherhood, legacy, blackness, queerness, worship and trauma.

Inspired by his creative writing students, Emory professor Jericho Brown invented a new form of poetry for his acclaimed collection, “The Tradition,” which brilliantly explores the contradictory myths of our nation and the vulnerable black and gay bodies within it.

“My students try the things I say they can’t get away with,” Brown says. “That inspires me to challenge myself, too. I created work for myself because of them, wanting to subvert forms and make new ones.”

The result was Brown inventing a new poetry form he calls the duplex. The new structure melds the formality of a sonnet, the inline rhyme and repetition of the ghazal, and duality of the American blues.

Released in April, “The Tradition” was a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry. The first “Duplex” poem in the volume hints at the harrowing images and vivid observations Brown masterfully captures in deceptively simple and short rhymes.

“A poem is a gesture toward home / It makes dark demands I make my own.”

A portrait of Jericho Brown

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