Growing up in southern Mississippi, my family of six struggled to put food on the table every single month. My parents, proud of the hard work they put in every day, worked two, sometimes three jobs at a time to make ends meet - and sometimes those ends were not met. We never owned a home. We spent periods living with family when we couldn't afford the rent. We sometimes went hungry.
My mom and dad didn't have the opportunity to earn a college degree and our frequent moving from one house to another, along with the trailing natural disasters that seemed to follow us everywhere, made life rough. Throughout my childhood there were only three rules in our household:
1. Put everything you have into your education - it's the only thing no one can ever take away from you, and it will give you the freedom to choose what you spend the rest of your life doing.
2. Always do the right thing, even when it's hard (so 'be the good you want to see in the world')
3. Be an honest person who fights for good even if the fight isn't 'yours' ('good, necessary trouble')
As a first-generation college student who earned a scholarship to Syracuse University, where I worked 50 hours a week to pay my rent and living expenses through my bachelors degree, I know what it's like to have to work to earn a living.
I watched my parents struggle only to be underpaid and overworked with no labor rights in an anti-union state (Mississippi). Having my son unplanned midway through my junior year of college only furthered my resolve in completing my education, even when so many doubted that I could or even told me to give up. I completed my degree just one semester behind - graduating cum laude with dual science and communications degrees.
Through my Master of Science degree at Louisiana State University, and my doctoral studies at Florida State University, I worked as an instructor, emergency response tech, science communicator, and even led academic training for university faculty.
Instead of cashing in with my advanced science degrees, I carried with me the lessons my mother taught myself and my siblings during hard times as kids: be the good you want to see in the world.
My sisters, brother and I all went into public service.
My older sister, a public school teacher in Mississippi, won speech and debate coach of the year for the second time in 2021.
My younger sister has worked as an RN in both hospice and hospital emergency rooms across the Gulf Coast, from New Orleans to Mobile.
I became a scientist focused on furthering our understanding of climate and disasters after one-too-many storms hit home.
My younger brother is now a police officer .
With two kids, rent, daycare, car payments and insurance, student loan payments, health insurance and everything that comes with just surviving, my husband and I could barely tread water on our state salaries, where we both worked as scientists researching public health and environmental issues for the state of Florida.
I believed in the mission and the oath I took to serve the people of Florida. I made transparency and accountability the cornerstone of my efforts while managing the Florida Department of Health's public COVID-19 data and surveillance systems. My refusal to play political games with people's health and safety got me fired. When I refused to stay silent, my own government came after me - pointing guns at my children to threaten me into submission.
It didn't work. The state underestimated my commitment to truth and protecting the people of Florida. They offered a bribe; I didn't take it. They smeared me; I fought back and proved my case. A corrupt government was never going to scare me into silence when truth was on my side. Eventually, even the state's Inspector General's office granted me legal whistleblower protection.
With the support of my husband, Jacob, a biostatistician and public health researcher, and my two amazing kids - Jack and Evelyn - I am ready to continue to serve the people of Florida, stand up to corruption, and fight for what's right.
I didn't ask for this fight, but I sure am ready for it.