Public health practitioners and UF M.P.H. alumnae celebrate a shared dedication to the field of epidemiology, engaging in a legacy of mentorship that spans years
By Katarina Fiorentino Klatzkow
Twenty-one years ago, Margo Riggs, Ph.D., walked across the stage at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center for the conferral of her Master of Public Health, graduating from the College of Public Health and Health Professions’ inaugural M.P.H. cohort. Fast forward to the spring of 2023 when Riggs found herself returning to Gainesville for the M.P.H. commencement ceremony, this time as a proud spectator. Riggs came to cheer on her mentee, Lacey Wilkerson, as she received her own UF M.P.H. degree.
Mentorship has always served as a pivotal influence in Riggs’ life. Riggs was pursuing a Ph.D. in pathobiology and immunology from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine when an introductory course in epidemiology sparked her interest in public health. She credits her dual degree, and guidance from a mentor who encouraged her to pursue the M.P.H., with ultimately altering her career path and opening new doors to scientific and health interests. She completed a postdoctoral research fellowship with the National Institutes of Health before being selected as an Epidemic Intelligence Service, or EIS, Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a position she applied for at the encouragement of her mentor.
“While in EIS, I trained to be a disease detective, conducting boots on the ground field epidemiology out in communities, helping to investigate outbreaks and prevent the spread of disease. That’s where I finally found my calling,” Riggs said.
Riggs, who enlisted in the U.S. Army out of high school, continued her service by commissioning as an active-duty officer in the United States Public Health Service, serving a 17-year tenure at the CDC. Now retired from the service, Riggs works as a regional health liaison for the Kentucky Department for Public Health and as an adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky and University of Pikeville. Additionally, she continues a legacy of mentorship through her connection with Wilkerson, an aspiring epidemiologist charting her own course in the public health field.
Wilkerson knew from early on that she wanted to pursue a career in health. In high school, when a teacher asked her class to write down their career goals, Wilkerson only had one profession in mind: epidemiology. Riggs was instrumental in showing Wilkerson the different avenues she could take to accomplish her dream.
When Wilkerson did a weeklong internship in Atlanta at age 16, she stayed with Riggs and had the chance to meet her CDC colleagues.
“She was a bright, eager learner,” Riggs said. “Her passion for science and research at such an early age was insatiable. She had all kinds of questions which led me to keep challenging her. She was working hard on assignments to learn about epidemiology, infectious diseases, and how to do research and read scientific manuscripts.”
Now Wilkerson is starting a position at the Kentucky Department for Public Health, where she will work in quality improvement for HIV prevention and treatment programs.
Paying forward mentorship is also a priority for Wilkerson.
“If there is someone in my life down the line who says, ‘I’m interested in doing the type of work that you do,’ then I’d be happy to help them as Margo has helped me,” she said.
In terms of identifying, reaching out to, and connecting with a mentor, both Riggs and Wilkerson have some valuable advice.
“Don’t give up when the first 10 people don’t respond,” said Wilkerson. “Reach out to anyone who will lend an ear. Some people would really invite the opportunity to be a mentor.”
Both Wilkerson and Riggs recommend leveraging your network, including faculty advisors, past bosses and social networking sites like LinkedIn to foster connections with professionals and experts in your field or role of interest.
“Look for a mentor who can help you develop some new strengths and overcome obstacles you need guidance with. Try to get to know someone who you respect, who’s heading in the direction that you want to be going and is a little further along in their career than you are. Take initiative to reach out and set up time to meet with them,” said Riggs. “Mentors have been crucial to my career progression and success.”