Distinguished Service Professor Mark Robson Honored

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Tuesday, September 27th

Distinguished Service Professor Mark Robson Honored with International Impact Award from the Office of the Rutgers–New Brunswick Chancellor

Over 43 years and almost three million frequent flier miles later, Dr. Mark Robson, Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor and professor of plant biology and pathology at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS), has made a major impact at Rutgers–locally and globally.

The Rutgers alum and faculty, who jokes that “my mother dropped me off at Rutgers in 1973, and I’m still waiting for her to come back,” is an internationally recognized expert in the study of pesticides in farmer and rural populations—and he shares that knowledge base with the rest of the world.

“I was born and raised on a farm in Burlington County, New Jersey. I watched my father use large amounts of pesticides and also saw the effects first-hand. I was the first member of my family to go to college, and I decided that this was the area I was going to study.”

Four decades later, Rutgers–New Brunswick chancellor Richard Edwards honored Robson with the prestigious Rutgers–New Brunswick Chancellor’s International Impact Award for Faculty Excellence, and it’s easy to see why.

In addition to mentoring dozens of undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. students from Africa, Europe, South America, and Asia, and editing or co-editing a number of international scientific publications, he has been a leader, a visionary, and a builder of health programs related to agriculture and the environment. His research has had a considerable impact on environmental and agricultural health in Southeast Asia, where Robson serves as the principal investigator on the NIH-funded collaborative research and training center, the Thai Fogarty International Training and Research in Environmental and Occupational Health (ITREOH) Center.

“Prior to the ITREOH the College of Public Health Sciences (CPHS) only had limited course work in environmental health, and the focus had been maternal and child health, health policy, and HIV/AIDS,” he said. “Through ITREOH, I’ve directly mentored 26 master’s of public health (MPH) and Ph.D. students from Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, Bhutan and the Philippines. Many of these women and men are up-and-coming scientists who will be the next leaders in their universities or ministries of health, agriculture, or the environment.”

One of these mentees, Dr. Wattasit Siriwong, an associate professor and deputy dean at Chulalongkorn University, said that Robson was directly responsible for progressing his career—and in turn, Siriwong paid the favor by helping support Robson’s Chancellor’s International Impact Award nomination.

“In 2001, he introduced one of the first environmental health risk assessment courses at a Southeast Asian university through a program funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Because of Robson, I am an associate editor of the Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment (HERA), as well as serve on four editorial boards, have written three book chapters with him—and over 40 peer reviewed papers.  He has taught me how to be a good researcher, a good teacher, and a good adviser,” Siriwong said. “I am very pleased … to support his nomination.”

Siriwong currently mentors students through the ITREOH Thai Fogarty Center; he says this “second generation” of researchers affectionately refer to Robson as “Grandfather Professor.”

As a result of the center’s growth, the NIH-funded Thai Center for Environmental and Occupational Health Research at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand—an expansion of the ITREOH Thai Fogarty Center. The expanded center focuses on the assessment and reduction of pesticide exposures to farmers and farm families and provides professional training.

“We have supported a number of trainees from southeast Asian countries for master’s and Ph.D. degrees in a variety of environmental sciences,” he said. “We have also funded five pilot projects, including one on the neurobehavioral effects of pesticide exposure among children in rural Thailand.”

Robson’s Thailand ties aren’t just about teaching and research—it’s about giving back. He leads a two-week Rutgers environmental health service-learning course to Bangkok, Thailand; in May 2016, 15 undergraduates participated in rotating assignments that included home health care visits with local clinic nurses, observing hospital care procedures, and delivering health and hygiene activities in nursery schools.

“Thailand is a wonderful country and with exceptional people, but it is still a poor country in many ways, and the majority of the people living in rural areas…have no infrastructure and lack basic health care. Rural Thais have a 50 percent prevalence rate for hypertension,” Robson said. “The students go into very humble and sometimes very sparse homes in the rural areas with the nurses for follow-up visits, often with stroke patients.”

Public health major Jacob Wasserman (SAS’18) joined the latest service-learning trip as a result of chance.

“I was walking through the GAIA Centers’ annual Fall Study Abroad Fair when I heard someone compliment my glasses—I walked over to Professor Robson and began a conversation with him about global health and the service-learning trip to Thailand,” Wasserman said. “He has been a mentor to me. I knew from my first visit to his office when we discussed honey production and the HIV/AIDS prevalence in urban Thailand, that the eccentric man on the other side of the desk was someone that I wanted to know.”

Wasserman describes the service-learning program as an immersive experience, with each day beginning at about 6:30 a.m.

“We drove each morning, through the previously unfathomable Bangkok traffic, from Bangkok to Pathum Thani, about an hour and a half before arriving at each of our worksites. I was assigned to the Bueng Thong Lang Sub-District Health Promotion Hospital, a local clinic with about 10 total employees that served the health needs of about 80,000 people. With the clinic, I worked with public health nurses and other volunteers to visit homes and care for patients with hypertension, diabetes, and paralysis,” Wasserman said.

Other service activities included planting rice and rice paddies.

“The rainy season had just started,” Robson said. “It had been unusually dry… so the rains are important for the crop production…which was expected to fall short for more major crops in 2016 because of the drought.”

“I really enjoyed learning how to farm rice from a local farmer. We took off our shoes, rolled up our pants, and got right in the mud to help him plant for an hour or so,” Wasserman said.

Benefits of the service-learning course weren’t reaped purely through hands-on educational experiences, Robson said. Thailand was gearing up for its 2017 presidential election, which provided the group with a first-hand look at international politics.

“The English newspapers were quite critical of President Obama’s recent visit to Vietnam—the Thais feel slighted and are pretty vocal about it,” he said.

Wasserman said he learned from Thai culture during the program.

“After work, the evenings either had a cultural activity scheduled, such as a Muay Thai boxing lesson,” he said. “I got to learn how to give a Thai massage, as well as cook homemade desserts and an extremely spicy papaya salad.”

Robson’s program, he said, also gave him an opportunity to make meaningful and lasting connections.

“I made many friends on my trip, from nurses to restaurant owners to cab drivers to farmers,” Wasserman said. “I realized on my journey, that common language is not a prerequisite for friendship, friendship only requires a mutual understanding and a smile from ear to ear.”

Those types of networks aligned with the large degree of freedom and independence Robson gave his students outside of their work.

“Fifteen undergraduates are a lot of work far from home with lost wallets, changes in travel plans, and minor medical issues,” Robson said, adding that at times the trip could feel “more parental than professorial.” Still, navigating these types of issues far from home is critically important for students in establishing independence.

“They stayed at the Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) house in the Bangsue section of Bangkok, and I was in an efficiency apartment closer to the university in Chidlom,” Robson said. “The students had weekends open, some went out in groups to the parks or beaches, while others remained in Bangkok.”

At the end of the program, students presented at the Lamlukka Hospital in Panthum Thani, Thailand, on what they learned, and came away with a number of good experiences, he said, “from things as simple as being in a very different place 12,000 miles from home, to seeing health care system with a very different lens and also seeing remarkable health and income disparities.”

“I’m really proud of them,” he added.

Economists predict that the Philippines will be the world’s 16th largest economy in 2050—currently, the nation is 44th—so there is a significant demand for more technologically savvy, globally-focused, and properly trained labor in the Philippines.

External agencies oftentimes play a role in stimulating or sustaining these international projects, like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that funded a five-year $32 million cooperative grant in 2014 to Robson and partners from several institutions, called “Science, Technology, Research, and Innovation for Development (STRIDE).”

The project expands viable economic growth in the Philippines through improved collaborative science, technology, and innovative research between the United States and the Philippines. University experts on the STRIDE team will also help Philippine institutions develop technical curriculums and expand applied research facilities to cultivate this world-class workforce; it will also help Philippine universities implement administrative protocols for more efficient finance, management, and technology operations.

Robson directs Rutgers’ participation in the collaborative project, which focuses on economic development, science and technology investment, and training of young Philippine scientists through faculty exchanges, country visits, master’s programs, mentorship programs, and scholarships.

Over five years, STRIDE will award 30 Philippine faculty members with research grants that allow them to spend one academic year in the United States; 27 smaller grants that support collaborative research; 55 scholarships to Philippine university instructors seeking advanced degrees; 55 scholarships for Philippine graduate students to conduct dissertation research in the United States; and 150 postdoctoral training fellowships. The project will also facilitate visiting faculty appointments and connect them to the needs of local industry.

Since 2014, Rutgers has welcomed STRIDE scholars from the Philippines to study under the professional science master’s (PSM) program.  In 2016–2017, Robson will supervise 10 mentees under the program.

“Rutgers has one of the largest PSM programs in the United States,” Robson said. “Under the STRIDE project, Rutgers is developing 10 PSM programs in the Philippines and will assist in training Filipino scientists who will come to the United States for master’s in business and science (MBS) degrees… the program is going strong.”

The STRIDE consortium is led by RTI International, a nonprofit organization that provides research and technical services to governments and businesses in more than 75 countries in health and pharmaceuticals, education and training, surveys and statistics, energy, and more; other partners include Florida State University, William Davidson Institute, and the University of Michigan.

Just like nothing is done in a vacuum, Robson seeks the expertise of other Rutgers faculty to galvanize international projects—particularly in Liberia.

Liberia has a promising agricultural sector that could bring about economic growth and prosperity to a region battered by recent civil wars.

This budding farming activity—much of which is spearheaded by women in Liberia—spurs the need for more education in agriculture, engineering, and gender equity studies at the university level. Though Liberian universities employ dedicated faculty and host eager students, limited resources and IT facilities impede these goals

Rutgers set forth to fill these resource gaps.  In 2011, Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) Distinguished Professor Dr. James Simon and EHELD PI and Rutgers’ School of Engineering (SOE) Distinguished Professor Dr. Bala Balaguru and experts from the GAIA Centers, SEBS, School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), the Food Policy Institute, the School of Social Work (SSW), the School of Communication and Information (SC&I) and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies—along with partners from North Carolina  State University, the University of Michigan, TetraTech ARD, Inc., and the nonprofit Research Triangle Institute (RTI)—began development of an innovative education and development initiative, the Excellence in Higher Education for Liberian Development (EHELD).

Funded by a five-year, $18 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), EHELD is bringing centers of excellence in agriculture and engineering to the University of Liberia and Cuttington University in Liberia.

Rutgers and its partners are developing a cutting-edge curriculum that will address agricultural and engineering topics to encourage all students to pursue these STEM career fields.

The program not only focuses on technical innovations, but on pressing social issues like university-building and gender equity. A portion of EHELD’s outreach aims to recruit more women into these professions.

The grant ends in 2017.

Robson considers his time at Rutgers to be a very important part of his life, and global issues have always been an integral part of Robson’s teaching. In addition to his many international research projects, he also has several globally based courses.  In fact, Robson was one of the first faculty to offer a Byrne course, “Global Health.”

The Rutgers–New Brunswick Chancellor’s International Impact Award for Excellence wasn't the first honor bestowed upon Robson for his work worldwide. He has received the SEBS International Award as well as the APLU (Association of Public and Land Grant Universities’ Malone Award).  He is the recipient of the Mehlman Award from the International Society of Exposure Science and is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, an elected Fellow of the American College of Toxicology and an elected Fellow of the Collegium Ramazzini.