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Inside the mind of researcher Sarah Rothenberg

Sarah Rothenberg

Assistant Professor Sarah Rothenberg joined the College of Public Health and Human Sciences in September 2017. Before coming to Oregon State, Sarah was an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of South Carolina. She’s also held post-doctoral positions at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, the Institute of Geochemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and New York University’s College of Dentistry’s Department of Epidemiology and Health Promotion. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics, a master’s degree in Statistics and a doctoral degree in Environmental Science and Engineering, all from the University of California, Los Angeles.

What made you decide to get into the environmental and occupational health field? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“My background is quantitative, and my doctoral degree is in Environmental Science and Engineering. As a doctoral student, my research focused on mercury cycling in wetlands. While I was a graduate student, I spent eight weeks in Beijing as part of the NSF Summer Research Institute in East Asia and Pacific. After this experience, I knew I wanted to return to China after graduation, where I felt my research on mercury was quite relevant.

Sarah Rothenberg in China

Sarah (bottom row, second from right) spent eight weeks in China as part of the National Science Foundation East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute in 2004

“My postdoctoral research, which was also NSF-funded, concerned methylmercury cycling in rice paddies in rural China. While investigating rice methylmercury, the next logical step concerned methylmercury exposure through rice ingestion and the impacts on children. Since 2013, I have been fortunate to be NIH-funded for this research.”

What does your current research entail?

“My current research concerns methylmercury exposure through rice ingestion.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“My doctoral advisor focused on methylmercury and taught me everything I know about mercury. After spending eight weeks in China as a graduate student, I was motivated to continue this research.”

How does your work make a difference?

“My goal is to mitigate methylmercury exposure. Methylmercury intake through rice ingestion differs from fish consumption because fish contains beneficial nutrients. Since rice does not, methylmercury intake through rice ingestion may be more harmful. It’s important that we continue this research because half the global population subsists on rice as a staple food.” 

What’s next for you?

“As a new faculty member in Oregon, I’m also interested in immigrant environmental health.”

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

“My role model was my main doctoral advisor, Dr. Jenny Jay, who was fearless! Jenny took chances by investing in new ideas, new instruments and new areas of research. When in doubt about a research idea, I try to do the same.”

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

“As a graduate student, I was fortunate to spend eight weeks in China. I continue to build on this experience as a researcher so I would suggest that students and recent alums use their summers to do research elsewhere. You never know how these experiences will invigorate your research.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“Reading! Recent books I’ve read include ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ by Anita Hill, ‘My Several Worlds’ by Pearl Buck and ‘Truth and Beauty: A Friendship’ by Ann Patchett.”