Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor Mark Robson (CC’77; GSNB’79, ’88; SPH’95), the 2021 recipient of the university’s Daniel Gorenstein Memorial Award, delivered the accompanying lecture, “Rutgers – A Public University in the Land Grant Tradition that Provides Opportunities: How We Can Teach Our Students to Address Critical Global Issues,” on October 19. Robson’s presentation was the twenty-eighth in a series of faculty award lectures presented under the auspices of the Daniel Gorenstein Memorial Lecture Fund and the Office of the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs honoring the late Daniel Gorenstein, professor of mathematics at Rutgers.
Robson, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology, is an internationally recognized scholar in environmental risk assessment and toxicology and a dedicated student mentor who first came to Rutgers as an undergraduate nearly 50 years ago. He studies the health effects of agricultural chemicals and food production practices in developing countries, which has resulted in important policy changes regarding the safe use of pesticides.
He previously spoke with Rutgers Today about his work and the significance of the award.
The Daniel Gorenstein Memorial Award honors Rutgers faculty who demonstrate “outstanding scholarly achievement and exceptional service to the university.” Can you tell us about the real-world impacts of your research?
Back in the 1990s we did a series of experiments with pesticides in indoor air to determine how these pesticides behave in real-life circumstances. We measured pesticides collected from hundreds of Big Bird stuffed animals made of polyurethane foam and discovered that they became a reservoir for pesticides and put children at risk.
In Thailand, we studied pesticide effects on farmers and their families. We found that the snakehead fish (Channa spp) accumulated pesticide residue in one or two internal organs. The snakehead fish is a very popular dish for the local people. By removing a few small pieces of tissue in the gut we found that 80 to 90 percent of the pesticide exposure could be eliminated and our farmers could still enjoy their favorite fish. I am grateful for the many talented researchers I have collaborated with throughout my career. Science is a team sport!
You are especially renowned at Rutgers for your unwavering commitment to mentorship. What continues to drive your passion for advising the next generation of scientists?
I was very fortunate to have good mentors who helped me understand how a good teacher can make a difference. I love serving as an advisor to Alpha Zeta and GlobeMed. These students keep me on my game, and my graduate students help me stay up to date on my science – toxicology and exposure assessment. I have to work hard to keep up with them!
One of my former graduate students is now the NJ state assistant commissioner of health, another is the director of environmental exposure assessment and education for NYC, and another is the former executive director of the Office of Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Knowing you played a small part in helping someone begin their career and seeing them make exceptional contributions to their discipline is simply the best!
What is one piece of advice you would like to share with students who are considering pursuing a career in science?
I tell my Rutgers students, especially those in my Byrne First Year Seminar, to “give science a chance.” Half of the students who arrive are ready for a pre-med track. The other half are undecided and may show a hesitancy for science because they feel a little intimidated by chemistry or the math. I assure them that it is not as onerous as is sometimes reported, and in fact when you apply these tools to real-world problems, it becomes very exciting and relevant.
What most excites you about Rutgers as we continue to grow as a beloved community?
I see the formation of a beloved community as one of the most important steps to move Rutgers forward. As a result of this awful pandemic, we learned that when we were not able to be actively engaged in this community, we all share a feeling of loss.
I teach “Global Health Perspectives” each semester. This year, I was so happy to look at my class and see a beautiful tapestry of students. In this diverse mix there are a range of opinions, faith traditions, and personal values. Today’s students are more informed and worldly, and I am glad that in 2021 they can share their thoughts and feelings in the classroom.
There is no doubt that you have had an invaluable impact on Rutgers University. How has being a member of this community, first as a student and then as a faculty member, shaped you as a scientist and a professor?
I grew up on a farm in Burlington County. I was a 4H club member and the first member of my family to attend college. The 4H Youth Program is part of Rutgers Cooperative Extension, so as a 10-year-old, I was exposed to Rutgers by attending programs on campus. At Rutgers I was able to experience cooperative living, which teaches undergrads patience, discipline, and practical skills, such as cooking. It isn’t easy to make lasagna or mac and cheese for 40, but now I can do that!
From 1991 to 2001, I served as the executive director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI) where I worked for Bernard Goldstein, one of the most extraordinary people I know. He facilitated my service on the National Institutes of Health and United Nations committees. Dr. Goldstein taught me how important it is to provide opportunities for early career faculty and staff.
What does the Daniel Gorenstein Memorial Award mean to you?
This is the most meaningful recognition I have received at Rutgers. My friend and nominator, Dr. Joanna Burger, was the recipient in 2002, and I remember attending her exceptional lecture. My lecture is dedicated to Dr. Burger. This is the best moment of my time at Rutgers and a significant and profound event in my career.