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Inside the mind of researcher Anna Harding

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From left to right: Anna Harding, professor; Greta Frey, MPH student in Environmental and Occupational Health, Superfund Research Program trainee with the Community Engagement Core; Diana Rohlman, outreach and engagement coordinator with the Superfund Research Program and the Environmental Health Sciences Center.

College of Public Health and Human Sciences alumna and Professor Anna Harding,  PhD ’90, is wrapping up a long career at Oregon State, which has spanned serving as a graduate teaching assistant, associate professor, chair of the Department of Public Health, graduate coordinator and co-director of the School of Biological and Population Health Sciences.


What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“When I entered college, I intended to go to medical school, so I spent the first few years as a chemistry major. After realizing I did not want to spend my career in a chemistry lab, I switched my major to community health where I would be able to apply my science background to public health issues. I chose to do an internship in environmental health and landed a job as an environmental health specialist after I graduated. In 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had just been created and there were a lot of opportunities in the field, plus federal funding to support new programs and positions in both county and state health departments. It was an opportunistic choice at the time. I pursued graduate school in environmental public health and have been in the same field of study ever since.”

What does your current research entail?

“My research seeks to better understand how communities and populations are exposed to environmental contaminants, what contaminants they are exposed to and how these exposures might impact health. By uncovering exposures and the larger context that contributes to environmental exposures, I hope to prevent exposures from occurring in the first place. For the last seven years, I have Anna-&-Team-Field-research-Synergiesbeen the principal investigator of the Community Engagement Core for the Superfund Research Center at OSU, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), one of the National Institutes of Health. Our core is engaged in community-based participatory research, collaborating with Native American Tribes in the Pacific Northwest to address tribal concerns regarding exposure to chemicals in their environment, with a focus on understanding exposure pathways to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are carcinogenic chemicals created through incomplete combustion and are found broadly in the environment. Tribal members may be exposed to these PAHs through diverse sources, such as living on reservations impacted by hazardous waste sites, collecting subsistence foods from contaminated waterways and by gathering traditional foods from contaminated lands. Housing characteristics and traditional practices such as smoking foods also contribute to their chemical exposures. The cumulative exposures from these unique pathways may increase the risk of environmentally related disease.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“Early on in my career as a professor, I developed the desire to focus my work with environmental justice populations that are disproportionately exposed to environmental health hazards. Prior to my research with the Superfund Research Center, I worked on a technical outreach team with the Hazardous Substance Research Center, funded in OSU’s College of Engineering. In that center, we worked directly with environmental justice communities that were directly impacted by hazardous waste issues. Following that and prior to my research with the Superfund Research Center, I was part of a research team that was funded by the USEPA – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – to develop tribal subsistence exposure scenarios. Both of these experiences provided a nice segue into the next phase of my career and the past dozen years or so, doing research with tribal scientists to uncover environmental exposures that are unique to tribal communities and that may impact the health of tribal members. Going back many years ago, however, for my entire life I have been interested in being engaged in work that improves people’s lives. I lived my grade school years in Tehran, Iran, and had the experience of seeing a great deal of poverty and people who live in disadvantaged communities, both in Iran and in our travels to other countries. Thus, being a researcher in public health and having the opportunity to be engaged in community-based research with tribal communities has been a terrific fit for me as a professor.”

“My research seeks to better understand how communities and populations are exposed to environmental contaminants, what contaminants they are exposed to and how these exposures might impact health.”

How will this make a difference?

“Our work contributes to building tribal capacity to measure and analyze environmental pollutants and improving tribal health without adversely affecting cultural practices. We work with our tribal partners to identify exposures that are of concern for them; they design the research questions with us. For example, although Native American communities have been practicing traditional methods of smoking food for thousands of years, the health effects of some of these traditions, including smoking the foods and eating traditionally smoked foods, have never been analyzed. Tribal members may also be exposed to PAHs through other sources on their reservations, such as in the ambient air or in their shellfish harvesting areas, but cannot move from their homelands to avoid contaminants. Thus, it is important for them to have this exposure information in order to design risk reduction measures, if needed, that are culturally appropriate. In turn, because most tribes have few resources to conduct scientific inquiry, it is important that the non-native research community develop the cultural capacity to work with Native American sovereign nations in an ethical, respective manner so that they can partner to do much-needed research with these populations.”

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?

Photo taken inside a teepee.

Photo taken inside a tipi.

“Research is the process of discovery, and it is never, ever boring! I work in a dynamic environment with very smart people and I am always learning from my research collaborators in the Superfund Research Center and from graduate students engaged in our research. Our work is rather unique in that few scientists have developed long-standing, trusting relationships with the tribes. Because of the relationships we have developed, our research team has been able to develop equitable partnerships and complete novel research that has produced unusual and important findings. In addition, everyone in our center has benefitted from working with our tribal partners. Tribes have their own traditional environmental knowledge, and we have learned a great deal about how their environment and their health are connected. It’s been eye opening for me to better understand tribal traditions.”

What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

“We have already answered some of the questions that tribal members have had about exposures from the traditional practices of smoking salmon, from ingestion of traditionally smoked salmon and from PAH exposures in the ambient air on the CTUIR Reservation – Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. We have also developed a model for doing ethical collaborative research with tribal communities, which has been recognized by NIEHS – National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – and featured in a 25th year anniversary document.

We anticipate that our research will improve risk assessment models by accounting for tribal land-use scenarios and unique exposure pathways. We have been building scientific capacity among tribal members participating in the research, and faculty and graduate students have developed insights and experiences doing research with sovereign tribal nations. Some of the outcomes and results of our work are posted on our Superfund Research Center webpage and in our tribal partnership newsletters.”

Are you working with anyone else in the CPHHS on this project?

“I have always been engaged on interdisciplinary research teams here at OSU. On the current project I work closely with Assistant Professor Molly Kile, who is a co-investigator with our core, Diana Rohlman (Community Outreach Coordinator), Barbara Harper (Research Associate Professor), Stuart Harris (CTUIR tribal member and scientist) and Greta Frey (MPH student in EOH). I also work closely with faculty and students in Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, Chemistry and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Our core also has research activities with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and staff there are our close collaborators.”

Why is research important in the field of public health/environmental health?

Eliminating environmental health disparities is a daunting task because there is so much that is still unknown about the public health effects of environmental exposures. Research contributes new knowledge that will hopefully be translated into policy and regulations that lead to prevention strategies that protect even the most vulnerable populations and overall improve the public’s health.”

What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?

“Our next projects include an indoor and outdoor air sampling project with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, as well as a project where tribal members wear passive samplers designed as wristbands to uncover ambient exposures. We are also designing an Open Access course on chemical risk assessment from a traditional and Native American perspective. I am planning to retire by the end of this academic year, so I am transitioning my research to my colleagues so they can continue on with the work that is well under way.”

“Tribes have their own traditional environmental knowledge, and we have learned a great deal about how their environment and their health are connected.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“My parents were rather adventuresome and advocated trying many different things at least once — that included meeting new people, eating unusual foods, trying out different musical instruments and traveling all over the world. That advice – trying things at least once – has opened up new doors and experiences for me throughout my life.

‘Strive to do your best and don’t settle for less than that so you discover what you are good at in life.’ I think this was sage advice as it has allowed me the freedom to pursue my own dreams and in the process, figure out what I do well and also discover what I don’t do well!”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“Figure out what you are passionate about so that you wake up every day inspired to be engaged in your work, and then chart a path to pursue this dream.

Be curious about everything and continue to be curious throughout your life. Become a lifelong learner.

Be a risk taker and venture into experiences that may make you uncomfortable, as this is how you will develop new interests and build confidence in your life – say ‘yes’ at times when it would be more convenient or more comfortable to say ‘no.’

Build balance into your life so that you can truly enjoy your work, your family and friends, and your hobbies.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“My husband, Rich Holdren, and I have nine grandchildren, ages 1-8, so my top favorite activity is to spend quality time with our grandchildren! I am an avid hiker and also enjoy whitewater rafting, camping, fly fishing, skiing, traveling and growing roses. When I retire, I also plan to read many more books for pleasure, resuscitate my piano playing, learn Spanish and engage in volunteer activities.”