Growing up in Cerrillos near the Ortiz Mountains, Megin Nichols knew she wanted to work with animals.
She remembers badgering her parents to adopt every furry creature under the sun, traveling to neighbors’ homes to clean horse stalls in exchange for a riding lesson or two, and working for a local veterinary clinic while attending Santa Fe High School.
Anything to feed her passion for animals.
But little did she know how far, and down what path, that passion would take her.
Nichols, 37, works at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a veterinarian, but not the sort of vet that comes to mind.
Since 2015, Nichols has investigated outbreaks in humans who have had contact with sick or infected animals in her role as the enteric zoonoses activity lead for the CDC. Zoonoses are diseases that spread from animals to humans.
“I walk onto that CDC campus in Atlanta in the morning and look up when I’m walking into the buildings and I can’t believe that a kid from Cerrillos, N.M., is working at the CDC on some of the things that are in the news,” Nichols said. “It wasn’t part of my wildest dreams.”
On April 18, her birthday, Nichols was tapped to help lead the CDC’s Food Systems Working Group. The consortium of federal, state and industry organizations was formed to address growing COVID-19 concerns within the food industry, one of the hardest-hit segments of the economy at the start of the pandemic.
“When we started to see some of the events with COVID that were impacting those workers who are in meat and poultry processing plants, as well as those in many other sectors, one of the things we really recognized was a need to bring together all of the partners together to have a conversation around our food system,” she said.
During her time on the team, Nichols formulated a COVID-19 testing strategy for food plants and other “high-density work settings” to screen asymptomatic employees before an outbreak occurs.
The strategy included the types of tests to be used for employees, when to test employees and what steps should be taken in the event of a positive test.
“It really does highlight some of the baseline things that can be put into place to avoid additional cases,” Nichols said. “It’s looking at testing as one of the many tools in our toolbox, the others being social distancing, wearing a face covering, that sort of thing.”
Nichols developed an ability to pull together different areas of expertise based on her work in animal epidemiology, which she doesn’t believe she would have pursued without an eye-opening experience during veterinary school at Colorado State University.
After graduating from Santa Fe High School, Nichols attended New Mexico State University, where she earned a degree in animal science.
She admits that most veterinary students tend to skip over the epidemiology side of the field in favor of more clinical aspects. But she was drawn to the subject by the energetic way in which her professor connected the lessons to real world examples.
While she has gone on to study multistate salmonella and E. coli outbreaks, what really peaks her interest is the bond between humans and animals, and how her work can help strengthen that bond in the future.
“I thought I wanted to work on herds of animals,” Nichols said. “I just never thought the herds of animals I would get to work on would be groups and communities of people, in addition to animals.”
“Those two things came together in my world of disease investigation because what I really want is for people to have pets and other animals in their house and to do so safely,” she added.
Like many across the country, Nichols hasn’t returned home to see her family since the start of the pandemic. But she looks forward to returning soon and getting her green chile fix.
The first in her immediate family to graduate from a four-year university, she’d like people from her home state to know that if they put in the work, they can reach great heights.
“I want to encourage other kids in New Mexico who have big dreams of doing things they didn’t think were possible to really go to and really listen to the mentors and teachers who are there to help along the way,” Nichols said. “Without them, I wouldn’t be here today. I am so incredibly grateful.”