USF Public Health alum named Chief Operating Officer at CDC

Ask Sherri Berger how she manages an $11 billion budget, and she’ll say: “Carefully. Slowly. Thoughtfully. Strategically.”

In August, Berger took over as the new Chief Operating Officer of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with its 10,000 employees, 5,000 contractors, and yes, that $11 billion budget.

“At every decision point, you have to ask: ‘How will this impact the science? What makes sense for making people safer and healthier?’”

It’s her science and epidemiology background that drives those decisions, she says. And her love for creating the structures that support them. “Right now, we’re looking at shrinking budgets. How do we think strategically? How do we provide support for state health departments, which are under pressure, and how do we provide flexibility for them?”

In 1996, Berger graduated from the University of South Florida with a master’s in public health with a concentration in epidemiology.

Her father’s early death of cancer started it. Berger wanted to get answers, and she looked for them in public health, first thinking she’d concentrate on policy studies. But Professor Tom Mason got her excited about cancer epidemiology.

She joined the CDC while still at USF 15 years ago, when she was one of only four people selected for the Association of Schools of Public Health/CDC Experimental Learning Program, a fellowship program allowing her to work as an epidemiologist in Florida while she completed her master’s degree coursework.

While at USF, she was president of USF’s Public Health Student Association. There’s a famous USF photo of her posing with buttons she made to drive attendance for public health week. She wanted to fire up the events.


Sherri Berger was front and center in an issue of the HSC News in 1996, pushing the National Public Health Week celebration on the USF campus.

“None of us who knew Sherri as a student will forget her – she was a ball of fire and emerged quickly as a highly effective student leader,” said Charles Mahan, MD, who was dean of the USF College of Public Health while Berger was there.

“Since I was chair of the CDC Advisory Committee, I was able to keep track of how our students were performing. And they loved Sherri. Actually they have loved most of our students who have worked there and keep telling me to send more, they are so well prepared. We are really proud of her.”

After graduating from USF, Berger relocated to the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta, where she continued her career as an epidemiologist with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Berger was principal investigator for a study showing that landfill emissions are directly related to asthma exacerbations.

Then she found she loved the challenges of organizational development. “I found I gravitated to administration, to personnel and budgets. I enjoy the global perspective, and I enjoy keeping things moving.”

Along the way, Berger was acting deputy director at the National Center for Environmental Health, associate director for Formulation, Evaluation, and Analysis in the CDC’s Financial Management Office, and director of CDC’s Recovery Act Coordination Unit.

One key leadership step was participating in the Senior Executive Service (SES) Candidate Development Program, where she completed several assignments outside of CDC, including time spent at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, HHS Office of the Secretary, and CDC′s Business Services Improvement Office. 

But the key lesson Berger offers current students is simple. 

“Despite the budgets, I encourage people to look at careers in public health – prevention is the key to better health for this country. Find something you’re passionate about and go for it.”

Story by Michael Hoad, USF Communications and Marketing