Visit to birth country ignites public health passion in COPH alum

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Dr. Kimberly Nguyen, who received her DrPH from the USF College of Public Health (COPH) in 2018, left her home in Vietnam for the U.S. when she was just five years old. She didn’t return again until she was a teen.

“I didn’t know what public health was until I traveled back to Vietnam,” said Nguyen, who is now a commander in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and a senior epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“My grandfather lived near a river, and my parents told me of how they used to bathe and swim in it,” said Nguyen. “But when I was there as a teenager, the river was clogged with trash. There was bad sanitation, which brought a bad smell and bugs. The pollution from all the cars and motorcycles was terrible, and there were a lot of vehicle and pedestrian accidents because they didn’t have traffic lights or crosswalks. It was after that trip that I decided I wanted to study public health. I wanted to help prevent disease and work toward healthy communities.”

Kimberly Nguyen, DrPH, at her USF COPH graduation in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Nguyen)

In high school, Nguyen applied for and received a coveted Bill Gates scholarship. She studied public health as an undergrad at Tufts University, where she also received her MPH in epidemiology and biostatistics. From there, Nguyen went to the University of Massachusetts/Amherst for her MS in epidemiology.

After graduation, Nguyen took a job with the Connecticut Department of Health. She spent two years as an epidemiologist in the department’s Asthma Program and published several papers on asthma prevalence in Connecticut and New England. She also evaluated the effectiveness of a home environmental program to reduce asthma and allergy triggers.

She wanted to protect people’s health in the whole country, and not just in one state. So, she made her way south to the CDC in Atlanta, where she’s been involved in everything from HIV to tobacco control to violence prevention.

Despite her multiple degrees, Nguyen—the mom of three young boys—knew there was still more she wanted to learn about public health.

“I really felt a doctoral degree could help me get where I wanted to go,” she said, “which was a leadership position at the CDC.”

The plan worked. Shortly after Nguyen graduated the DrPH online program, she was offered her current CDC position.  She’s one of the chief epidemiologists in the CDC’s Immunization Services Division, where she’s responsible for the scientific review of all research on vaccination coverage in the U.S.

“I chose the COPH for my doctoral work because the school is so highly rated,” said Nguyen. “It’s also close to Atlanta, and I have family in Tampa, so I knew traveling to the on-campus DrPH Institutes [there are three over the course of the program] wouldn’t be a problem.”

Nguyen credits the program with giving her the skills she’s needed to become an emerging leader in public health.

“I took a lot of courses in scientific writing, research design, leadership, epidemiology and statistics,” said Nguyen, who has had all her dissertation research—mostly on violence and sexual violence against children— published in different journals. “They all really enhanced my writing, leadership, presentation and public speaking skills.”

Nguyen (holding FEMA poster, right) was deployed to Puerto Rico with other U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned officers during Hurricanes Irma and Maria. (Photo courtesy of Nguyen)

Those skills have come in handy at both the CDC and in her work with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which she joined in 2012 as a way to serve her country and advance the health of the nation. She’s traveled to Houston to support the emergency response to Hurricane Harvey, to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria and to New York State to help combat the outbreak of measles.

“I’m expected to be ready and able to deploy anywhere in the U.S. or around the world at a moment’s notice to support public health emergencies or disasters,” Nguyen explained.

Nguyen’s ultimate career goal is to become the associate director for science at the CDC. “I’d like to review more of the scientific work at a higher level among more staff and make a larger impact on scientific research at CDC.  “This degree is helping me get there and I’m really glad I’m making a difference in the work that the CDC does.”

Alumni Fast Five

What did you dream of becoming when you were young?

A teacher

Where would we be able to find you on the weekends?

Probably at one of my kid’s soccer games or a piano recital

What was the last book you read?

“Goodnight Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown. I read it to my son last night.

What superpower would you like to have?

I would like to transport myself, so I can get to places faster and do twice as much as I’m doing now.

What’s your favorite movie?

“Lord of the Rings”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health