My “Meet the Scientist” series brings you conversations with NCEH/ATSDR scientists that aim to give you a sense of the talented people who are working to keep you safe and secure from those things in the environment that threaten our nation’s health.
What does someone who enjoys singing, has a biopsychology background, and is a former zookeeper become? An Environmental Health Specialist! Well, at least that’s the path taken by my most recent “Meet the Scientist” interviewee, Lt. Cory Kokko, with the United States Public Health Service (USPHS).
I didn’t quite know what to make of the bilious green solution Cory was drinking as she entered my office. The blended concoction of ingredients that looked as though it included half-dozen vegetables and a fruit or two left me speechless as to how someone could actually drink that stuff. Not surprisingly, one of the first things I learned about Cory is that she’s intensely into health and fitness. As we continued to talk, Cory shared that she was born in Southern Indiana, close to Louisville, Kentucky, on an Arabian horse farm. Cory attended Emory University, where she received dual degrees in music (Cory is classically trained in voice) and biopsychology. She’s also recently married.
The Indirect Path to CDC, or Cory’s “A-ha! Moment”
“How did you end up at CDC?” I asked Cory. She explained that her first public health experience came while attending Emory University, where she worked in an arteriosclerosis lab making slides of artery sections and looking for causes of the various plaques that can cause build-up.
After several interesting work experiences, including stints as a primatologist and zookeeper, she decided to complete her graduate studies at Emory and applied to the behavioral science and health education program. In a strange twist, Cory received a phone call from the head of the Environmental and Occupational Health department suggesting she had applied to the “wrong program.” He urged Cory to change her application and apply to his department instead. In her mind, because she had a degree in psychology, a career in health education made sense. He explained that the combination of her essay on environmental health issues coupled with her lab experience pointed to a career in environmental health, not health education. Energized by the connection between environment and health, Cory joined the environmental and occupational health program at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, in fall 2005.
Shortly thereafter, she attended a class on disaster preparedness. One of the guest speakers was a USPHS Veterinary Officer at CDC. The officer discussed her experience going on a foot and mouth disease outbreak and also ownership of pets and disaster evacuations. The officer said that if people are unable to bring their pets to shelters with them, they are less likely to evacuate an area—even when they are told to leave. This was Cory’s “aha moment.” An animal lover, Cory immediately saw the connection to environmental health.
Afterwards, she made contact with the officer and asked, “How do I become you?” Cory shared her background, which included her research and experiences as a zoo keeper and veterinary technician. The officer took Cory “under her wing” and brought her to CDC for a visit. The officer introduced Cory to staff veterinarians, and eventually offered her a position as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science Education (ORISE) Fellow. Cory was able to segue her love of animals into a job, and she has been a CDC environmental health specialist since 2007.
Environmental Health Internships
Cory’s position at NCEH/ATSDR involves environmental health workplace issues. She created and leads an environmental health student internship program she helped create to address impending federal, state, local, and tribal workplace shortages in environmental health professionals. The flagship summer internship program, Collegiate Leaders in Environmental Health (www.cdc.gov/nceh/cleh) exposes students who have a strong interest in environmental issues to environmental public health. Cory stated, “I find it easy to teach environmental public health to a student who has a strong basis in environmental issues like air, water, food, and soil.” The program consists of themed weeks during the summer on
- environmental justice
- emergency preparedness
- chemical exposures
- built environment
- global environmental health.
Cory also runs a similar program for graduate students called CDC Summer Graduate Environmental Health Internship, and she assists with a program targeted specifically towards environmental health students called the Summer Program in Environmental Health.
Career Paths to Public Health programs
Cory shares her environmental health expertise in the Career Paths to Public Health programs. Cory explained that she helps middle and high school science teachers create environmental health-focused lesson plans for the Science Ambassadors program, and she has helped create lesson plans on climate change, built environment, and noise-induced hearing loss (non-occupational).
Favorite CDC Activity
I asked Cory about her most interesting activity so far at CDC. Cory said that participating in disaster responses is her favorite. She told me that in 2008, she went on an Epi-Aid assignment in Iowa due to a flooding disaster. She especially remembered the incredible way that people in Iowa responded to that disaster. “People genuinely cared for and helped each other,” said Cory. She also recalled “there was also a dearth of information, where the media did not properly communicate health information. I had a chance to help ensure correct health information was being disseminated.” During this event she also worked on a communication study and evaluation that looked at health communication messages. She also distributed information sheets on well water testing and chlorinating for the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Most Memorable CDC Experience
Cory chatted with me about her 2010/2011 detail at EPA region 4 in the Superfund and Emergency Response Branch. She went on Superfund clean-ups and participated in chemical emergencies. Observing EPA’s removal and clean-up processes was great experience that led Cory to seek out the next step in her career at ATSDR: serving as a regional representative. On September 1, 2012, Cory will be moving to ATSDR Region 7 in Kansas City, MO to continue in her environmental public health journey.
Most Interesting Career Experience
Finally, I wanted to know from Cory, that of all career experiences she’s had, what’s been the most interesting? “Being a zookeeper/primatologist and raising baby white Bengal tigers, clouded leopards, and snow leopards. I guess it is hard to compete with that,” she replied.