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Chung leaves her mark as first Brittain Award recipient studying public health

By Kelly Jordan | Emory Report | May 7, 2021

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As the pandemic unfolded, E. Lisa Chung got involved with multiple response efforts, from performing tests and delivering vaccines to mapping out prevention plans. She’ll continue her studies as a public health PhD student at Emory in the fall.

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Born in Minneapolis, raised in South Korea, and having spent time in California and Seattle before landing in Atlanta, E. Lisa Chung is the type of person who has a hard time answering where she is from. Perhaps that’s why she is so good at forming connections and building community wherever she goes.

Her selection as this year’s graduate student recipient of the Marion Luther Brittain Award underscores how exceptional Chung is, given that the honor recognizes “significant, meritorious and devoted service to Emory University with no expectations of recognition or reward.”  

Even within the constraints of a Zoom interview, Chung’s humility and genuine concern for others shine through as she talks about members of her cohort as a master of public health (MPH) student in the Department of Epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health. In the 20 years since the inception of the Marion Luther Brittain Award, this is the first time a master’s student from Rollins has received this prestigious award.   

“I’m genuinely humbled and incredibly honored. With this award, I feel that I get to represent everyone else that contributed to the projects and activities I was lucky enough to lead. It’s a humble reminder of what an amazing opportunity it has been for me to be here at Emory and to learn and be inspired by others,” she says.

Rising to the occasion

The year 2020 was a memorable time to be a public health student, particularly for Chung, who was part of on-the-ground response to the COVID-19 pandemic in real-time. As one of nine students engaged with the Emory COVID-19 Outbreak Response Team led by Jodie Guest, vice chair of Rollins’ epidemiology department, she helped perform COVID-19 tests among poultry plant workers in Hall County, assisted in developing COVID-19 prevention plans for the Hall County School System, helped with the COVID-19 response in Milledgeville and delivered vaccines to members of the Mexican Consulate. This work all rolled into the subject for her thesis, which focused on evaluating risk factors for positive COVID-19 testing among the Latinx population of Atlanta.

Getting the opportunity to participate in pandemic response as it unfolds is a rare opportunity, but so too is engaging with pandemic prevention planning for the famed Iditarod race in Alaska, which Chung cites as a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. Through Guest’s personal connection with the race, Chung was able to assist Guest and others in developing isolation strategies and prevention plans related to COVID-19 safety at the race. 

Chung’s COVID-19 efforts didn’t end there. She volunteered with the Georgia Department of Public Health to assist in data entry with Patient Under Investigation forms submitted for COVID-19 test requests and received funding to distribute PPE at Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

Protecting public health at the polls 

In early 2020, right before COVID-19 hit the U.S., Chung and her classmate, close friend and fellow response team member Eleanor “Nellie” Garlow began talking about the November 2020 presidential election and issues surrounding COVID-19 prevention and safety messaging.

With the help of fellow students and guidance from Joanne Williams, associate director for student engagement at Rollins, Chung and Garlow co-founded and led the Rollins Election Day Initiative and successfully convinced the Rollins administration to make election day a day “on,” urging faculty to remove all synchronous learning. This allowed faculty, staff and students the ability to use the day to vote and participate in civic engagement on election day.

Exceptional across the board 

In addition to the Marion Luther Brittain Award, Chung was recognized by the Journal of Public Health Management as a Student Who Rocked Public Health in 2020, and was the recipient of both Emory’s Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award and the Dr. Kathleen R. Miner Scholarship for Public Health Excellence. 

“Lisa has been an outstanding MPH student in the Department of Epidemiology,” says Timothy L. Lash, chair of the department. “She is such a terrific scholar and has been an outstanding ambassador for the department.”

This fall, Chung will continue at Emory as a PhD student in epidemiology. As she looks ahead, she also reflects on aspects of the pandemic she will carry with her.

“I hope to continue being proactive in building relationships and checking in on people,” she says. “I’ve also realized, everyone is doing the best they can. We have to give each other grace.”