New grad Menkeoma Laura Okoli sets her sights on PhD then CDC

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Menkeoma Laura Okoli first became interested in public health working at a medical internship in her native Nigeria.

“The hospital where I worked as a medical doctor received victims of bomb explosions perpetrated by terrorists,” says Okoli, who received her MPH with a concentration in epidemiology and biostatistics from the USF College Public Health (COPH) on December 7. “Besides the crucial emergency-medicine experience it provided, it got me thinking about volunteering. Several families were displaced and were now inhabitants of internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps, living in unhealthy and unfavorable conditions.”

Okoli (her first name, Menkeoma, means “do good” in Nigeria) became head of the medical team at Green Heart Impact Foundation, a charitable non-governmental organization that works to provide medical services and relief supplies to those living in IDP camps. She and her colleagues provided basic medical care, such as blood pressure readings and glucose screenings, as well as care packages containing mattresses, blankets, cooking utensils and groceries.

The experience gave her insight into how much still needed to be done for displaced people—and how much she still needed to learn in order to help them.

Menkeoma Laura Okoli with USF President Judy Genshaft at the 2018 Kente Awards and Scholarships Luncheon, held in April. (Photo courtesy of Okoli)

“On some of my outreach visits to the rural areas, I encountered children with hematuria [blood in the urine, which can occur from unclean drinking water]. I started to see the need for urgent policy reform. As a clinician, I can only affect the life of the individual. I wanted to do more,” she said.

With that goal in mind, Okoli decided to pursue her MPH in epidemiology and biostatistics.

“I wanted to learn how to effectively gather and analyze data and use the results for policy change,” Okoli explained. “I wanted to contribute to improving the lives of populations.”

Okoli researched schools of public health and ultimately decided on the USF COPH.

“The USF COPH is one of the best public health schools in the United States,” she said. “It is laden with faculty who are seasoned and vastly experienced in their respective fields.”

Okoli says she has her academic mentor, Dr. Kevin Kip, a USF Distinguished Health Professor and a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, to thank for much of her success. Besides giving her valuable research opportunities, he also gave her valuable advice.

“I had a rough first semester,” Okoli remembered. “But he listened and encouraged and motivated me to push through it all. He would tell me, ‘Never has there been great success without a storm,’ and I still tell myself this always.”

Okoli was the recipient of several scholarships while at the COPH, including the Lee Leavengood Senior Program Endowed Scholarship and the Student Honorary and Research Practice Award. She’s also worked as a research assistant at the Florida Prevention Research Center, where she focused on colorectal cancer screening and testing, and was a graduate research assistant in the epidemiology strategic area, working on NIH grant proposals, manuscript developments and research study participation.

Okoli plans to work for a year as an infection epidemiologist in a hospital setting before pursing her PhD. Her ultimate career goal: head epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“I think USF is a fantastic university and I love the fact that student success is a priority here,” Okoli said. “I think my time at the COPH was very well spent.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health