In Florida to run the Disney Marathon in January, USF College of Public Health MPH graduate Kimberly Rogers decided to reconnect with familiar faces and old haunts in Tampa while she had the chance. She connected with Natalie Preston-Washington at COPH and wound up accepting an invitation to be the first speaker in the “Healthy Bites” lunch and learn series.
“I just said, ‘I’d like to come by the college to say hi to folks,’ and it led to this,” said Rogers with a smile.
The ebullient Rogers leapt right in, glad to share her experiences and advice with public health students who are where she was only a few years ago.
After completing her master of public health (global health practice with concentration in maternal and child health) in 2008, Rogers went directly into the CDC’s Public Health Associate program, then a three-year paid fellowship (now two). The program gave her, she said, “boots-on-the-ground public health experience.”
“If you want to be a leader in public health, to see first-hand what goes on on the ground is imperative,” she said.
Her first post-graduate locale provided an easy transition from COPH to the CDC fellowship.
“I lucked out and got to stay in Tampa and work at the Hillsborough County Health Department downtown,” she said.
Her first year was spent in HIV and STDs, which provided an early test of intestinal fortitude while her very grounded boots walked a wild gamut of human paths.
“You want to talk about something that gets you out of your comfort zone? Go to people’s houses, and always to deliver bad news. You’re never there for good news,” Rogers said.
But seeing “the humanity of it all,” she said, was a life experience she treasures.
“STDs, like a lot of other diseases, know no sex, they know no socio-economic status, they know no age, they know no income, no race. I was regularly going from the worst parts of Tampa to Bayshore Boulevard and knocking on gated homes in gated communities in the same day.”
Her second year was devoted to tuberculosis, a boon to her present work in Alaska, which has the highest TB rate of any state in the union.
The final year of her fellowship, a stint with the health department’s epidemiology division, rounded her knowledge.
Fellowship complete, it was serious career time for Rogers, and sticking with the CDC was a natural choice. But what exactly to do, and where?
She never thought she would consider living in Alaska, she said with the same energetic spirit that regularly rings through her rhetoric, but remembering an unexpected high from a COPH India field experience made her consider the position there that has been her professional lifeblood since 2011.
“That was just crazy,” she said of first even considering Alaska. “I saw it and laughed – not at the job, but at the location. I applied for some other jobs, turned some down and thought I was crazy for doing so. But then I talked with my current boss on the phone for 10 minutes, and I knew that this was exactly what I wanted to do.”
“This” was moving the 5,000 miles from Tampa to Anchorage to take a position as a quarantine public health officer at the CDC Anchorage Quarantine Station, one of 20 quarantine stations in the U.S. Her role, she said, is to “prevent or mitigate the introduction of infectious diseases into the United States.” The work focuses on responding to health threats related to travel by air, land or sea.
In that capacity, she develops preparedness exercises, conducts multiagency partner training and leads surveillance projects. No day is ever the same at the Quarantine Station, she said, and the dynamic work environment and “great working relationships” with partners in the public health and port communities of Alaska have kept her there, happily, for the past three-plus years.
Outside of work, Rogers serves as an executive board member of the Alaska Public Health Association and mentors aspiring marathoners in their running and fundraising efforts as part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. The Disney Marathon she was in town to run in January was her fifth marathon overall.
Five years before her move to the “Last Frontier,” Rogers’ immediate leap into graduate studies had engaged a shift, she said, from her bachelor’s degree in “the hard sciences” – namely biology and chemistry – to the social sciences. But more, it proved to be a humbling experience that presented an unanticipated challenge.
“Oh, I loved it, but I think there is good and bad about going straight from undergrad to grad school,” she said. “The good is that you still have that energy and that zest to get through, and you’re in that groove with the school.
“The bad is that you’re surrounded by people who have an amazing amount of work experience – international students who have medical degrees from other countries who are bringing that experience to a global health program – and you’re a 22-year-old kid who’s just finished with her bachelor’s degree and setting foot here trying to figure out what the heck to do.
“That was a challenge, and it was a humbling one. But it also was an opportunity really to delve into it further, because I didn’t want to disappoint my peers. I wanted to be on their level and to engage with them in the appropriate way and to learn from them.”
Her COPH experiences added to the mix, as she gained valuable leadership experience by serving as co-president of the USF Public Health Student Association, where she coordinated the annual COPH flu shot drive and numerous other service and social functions with her peers.
Her last year at the college culminated with “an amazing field experience” in Mumbai, India. In no small part influenced by memories of her undergraduate roommate’s tales, she leapt at the chance to spend two months working with a nonprofit that helps the children of migrant construction workers.
“Globally mobile populations,” she calls them. “People who are going from one place to the next, who can’t set up health care, can’t even set up to go to school.”
Perhaps unlike any other, the organization known as Mumbai Mobile Crèches actually moves with the people it serves. Faced with choosing between an IFE in Panama that would essentially have been mapped out for her and the daunting unknown of an adventure in India, Rogers chose the latter.
She had to set it up herself in the midst of a whirling funnel cloud of question marks. No one in her class had gone to India. She was committing to two months and realized she had no idea what she was getting herself into. The college had approved the project, but basics like living arrangements were up in the air. What little she knew wasn’t exactly what she was used to: She would share a 500-square-foot flat with four other people during the monsoon season.
“While I was on the plane,” she recalled, “I was thinking, ‘I think I made a horrible decision. Oh, my god, I have totally screwed up.”
But the reality that greeted her, challenging as it was, lit her public health fire so hot not even trudging through water up to her knees – which she did plenty of but now laughs about – could extinguish it. It was, she said, the warmth and kindness of the people she served that stoked that fire.
“To see the heart of these people makes you want to do everything you possibly can to help them,” she said. “You think, ‘Why are these people in this position? This is what I’m here to do. Let me try to give this population the things that I didn’t have to work to get. I didn’t have to work to get clean drinking water, so why do they? What can we do to change that?”
Then a junior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, she credits UNC for spurring her to “shift pretty late in the game to public health,” flipping her public health switch on by revealing its essence.
Rogers had just transferred to UNC from Chipola College in Marianna, Fla. A native of Springhill, La., a town of slightly more than 5,000 that abuts the Arkansas state line, she had grown up in Blountstown, Fla., where she was one of 78 in her high school graduating class.
“Chipola College was amazing. It provided me with a lot of opportunities, but then transferring to North Carolina was just mind-blowing. Everybody needs an experience of being a small fish in a big pond, and that was my experience, because it had been the other way around the entire way there.”
She had never met international students before, she said, and it was another experience that flipped on her public health switch.
“I don’t think I really understood what public health was until I was 20 years old. I had a pretty sheltered life until then,” she said. “For the first time learning about people’s journeys, joining those organizations, meeting those international students and hearing their stories just made me realize health from a whole new perspective. It’s not a physician telling someone what to do. It’s a broader perspective. It’s managing health disparities, for example.”
She simply had not, she said, “really opened up the world” until global health showed it to her and begged her to look inside.
“I had a roommate who was from India, grew up there,” she remembered, “and regaled me with tales of seeing one side of town that was cosmopolitan – you would not differentiate it from New York – and the other side of the street that was a slum. And we have that here in the United States. We have that here in Tampa, just on a smaller scale.
“Those situations just brought in a worldwide perspective that put me in a place where I thought, ‘Instead of writing a prescription for one person, why can’t I help with a hundred vaccines for an entire village or help increase the water supply?’ That’s public health, and it wasn’t until then that I learned that.”
Story by David Brothers, College of Public Health.