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Class of 2021
A ‘heart’ for health, justice and helping others

Honored with a “Heart of Emory” award, MPH student and future HIV epidemiologist Nellie Garlow has dedicated her time to the COVID-19 Outbreak and Response Team, the Rollins Election Day Initiative, and more.

Social justice has been an integral part of Nellie Garlow’s life from an early age. Growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, just a short drive from the National Mall, Garlow’s childhood is sprinkled with memories of protesting at the nation’s capital.

“One of my earliest activism memories is protesting against mass shootings in America at the Million Mom March [held when Garlow was 8], which I attended with three generations of women in my family,” she says, noting the lasting importance her family placed on civic engagement.

Garlow was raised in an environment where volunteerism, activism, healthy eating and wellness were encouraged and underscored by her parents’ professions — her father worked as a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency and her mother was a nurse practitioner. As an adult, those experiences and values have served as touchstones for Garlow as she navigates opportunities as a master of public health student in the Department of Epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health. 

Garlow, with tremendous support from her department, is one of six students university-wide to be selected for the 2021 Heart of Emory Award. This award of “highest honor” recognizes students who “truly represent the best of what Emory has been and will be.”

“I can think of no better way to describe Nellie than to call her the heart of what Emory stands for during a pandemic and beyond,” says Rollins professor Jodie Guest, an infectious diseases epidemiologist and one of Garlow’s nominators for the award. “It has been an honor to work alongside her this year and witness her investment in those around her. She does not shy away from the hard work as she is guided by her strong desire to help others.”

In contemplating her selection for the Heart of Emory Award, Garlow is reflective. “Knowing I had so much support from my peers, professors and chairs means so much,” she says. “That validation that all of the time I spent outside of classes on these causes is so meaningful to me. Seeing it manifest in this award is the cherry on top.” 

Given the time investment Garlow placed on student activities, athletics and initiatives during her undergraduate years at Franklin & Marshall College (where she earned her bachelor’s in public health), Garlow vowed she wasn’t going to get involved with student organizations this time around. And yet … that’s contradictory to who Garlow is. “I physically can’t help myself,” she says. 

While she was selective in the causes and initiatives she engaged with at Rollins, Garlow’s exhaustive efforts made her a visible changemaker at both the school and university level, embodying qualities lauded by the award, which include creating “a legacy through connection, creativity and a commitment to social justice.” 

Defining her own history through action

Garlow serves as one of nine students on the COVID-19 Outbreak and Response Team, led by Guest, which has traveled across the state providing COVID-19 testing, surveillance and education at more than 34 testing events.

“Working with this team was a defining moment of my career and my life,” says Garlow. “When I look back in 30 years, I’m going to be proud that I worked on the outbreak response team and that I served people in the field.” 

That idea of history and how she’ll see herself in the future motivated Garlow’s involvement in a number of additional efforts as well. She and fellow epidemiology student Lisa Chung founded a journal club with two other epidemiology students in early 2020 for the Department of Epidemiology focused on current literature being published about COVID-19.

The duo provided PPE to demonstrators during Black Lives Matter protests over the summer and collaborated again to co-found the Rollins Election Day Initiative (REDI), which called for the Rollins administration to designate election day a day “on” and cancel all synchronous classes to encourage civic engagement and easy voting access for all Rollins students, faculty and staff. Equipped with lessons learned from an experience petitioning the administration at her undergraduate college, Garlow directly contributed to REDI’s successful execution, adoption and longevity through the creation of a fleshed-out sustainability plan. 

Garlow’s persistence, precision and drive have served her well in the public health workforce, too. She worked as an epidemiology intern at the Georgia Department of Public Health and held two separate Rollins Earn and Learn positions at the CDC. 

For her thesis, Garlow analyzed HIV data collected by the Fulton County Board of Health. She’ll be presenting her findings at the CSTE Annual Conference in June.

Following graduation, she will work as an HIV epidemiologist at a state health department.

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