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October 23, 2018 - ATN Researcher Profile: Ilyssa Tamler

Photo of a group of people including Ilyssa TamlerIlyssa Tamler realized she wanted to work in medical research after studying abroad, where she met children orphaned by HIV and AIDS. Today she is the lead coordinator for the first stage of the ATN’s Planning 4 PrEP (P4P) study, where she is involved with surveys and study participant interviews.

She got her start through engagement with service opportunities, such as clubs on her campus at Boston College and working with underprivileged youth in the area. “I did a lot of mentoring and helping youth with homework,” she said. “I did activities with them like boxing and Zumba to get them doing things after school.” She also participated in a lot of medical work and found many opportunities to get involved.

“When I was in South Africa studying abroad, I did a tour of a village and someone came up to me suddenly and said ‘you have the power to make a difference, and do something with your career.’ That really impacted me,” she said.

She also worked at a clinic in Mexico where her responsibilities involved daily engagement with children at an orphanage. “I took care of middle school girls, 100 of them, and I was in charge of making sure they did their homework, went to school, and did everything they should be doing,” she said. “I was social support for them, someone they could talk to for anything they needed. They needed someone to count on, and that became my role.”

Through all of these experiences, Tamler found that there were social determinants that don’t seem related to health, but which impact health nonetheless. “Social determinants are such an important factor. These are any factors that aren’t biological, so there are many things that factor into getting sick, like where you live, or how much money you have,” she said.

This was a major lesson as she returned to her hometown, Detroit, and joined the Global Health Initiative at the Henry Ford Hospital. In this role, she coordinated health promotion projects in Colombia and Myanmar, managed Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocols, and coordinated trainings, as well as publishing scientific papers.

Tamler made the move to Atlanta, Georgia, where she worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and then later worked for the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. She is a new graduate of the Masters of Public Health program at Emory.

Tamler met Dr. Jessica Sales, co-Principal Investigator for the Planning 4 PrEP project, at Emory. Planning 4 PrEP is a study that focuses on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, in clinics in the US south. Dr. Sales offered Tamler the opportunity to be a graduate assistant on the project.

“I was really excited to learn something new,” Tamler said. “The south has the highest percentage of HIV cases. About 52% of HIV cases are in the south and specifically where we are, Atlanta, which is a huge hotspot for HIV.”

“Dr. Sales has taught me so much in the past year and a half,” Tamler said. “She is one of those principal investigators who is so involved and really cares about what she’s doing. She’s really inspiring because she does so much work and it’s incredible to see how she handles it so gracefully.”

Working on the P4P study, Tamler interacts with the study’s coordinating center, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They’re amazing and so helpful,” Tamler said. “They are unbelievably organized and it’s been a great experience working with them. Maria Sanchez and Tess Filipowicz are wonderful and on top of everything.”

Tamler has thrived while living in Atlanta. “The weather is beautiful all of the time, and I love going to country music concerts and getting into hobbies like sand volleyball and kickball sports leagues,” Tamler said. “I love being outside in general, and working out and using the new walking path that connects the city.” Tamler is excited about all she is learning at Emory and through her work on P4P, where she has mentors to help her grow as a person and a professional.

She also has advice for those looking to start a career in public health. “The biggest thing, first of all, is to follow what you’re passionate about,” Tamler said. “That’s the way you’re going to make the biggest difference, because you are doing something you love and that’ll come through in your work.”


Learn more about the Planning 4 PrEP project in this project summary and this short video profiling the study.