Alumni interview: Sarah Ash, N82

by Hassan Dashti

Sarah Ash graduated from Tufts in 1982 as a member of the first graduating Friedman class. She is currently a professor at the department of food sciences at North Carolina State University and teaches courses in nutrition history and other nutrition-related subjects. I was excited to interview Sarah not only because of her food enthusiasm and connection with Tufts, but also because of her personal experience with Jean Mayer, a president of Tufts, and Stanley Gershoff, Friedman School’s first dean.

When Sarah attended Friedman, the entire school was brand new. The program was still developing and the school was expanding with few extracurricular opportunities within the school. But that did not stop her from keeping busy outside of the classroom.

Aside from courses, what other things did you engage in at Tufts?

At the time, since the program was new, there wasn’t that much else to get involved with. I did do research and ghost write for Drs. Mayer and Goldberg’s syndicated newspaper column on nutrition twice a month.

How important were those to you and how did they influence your career?

I really enjoyed that for several reasons. First, I’ve always enjoyed writing and I was glad to have an opportunity to hone my skills some more. It also helped to further my knowledge of the field since I was constantly reading the latest literature on any given topic and it gave me tremendous experience doing literature searches, a skill that I’ve been able to pass along to my students.

Finally, it gave me an early and significant understanding of (and sometimes skepticism about) how the discipline does its work. For example, I learned how untested theories can become dogma (Jeanne Goldberg never wanted me to cite secondary sources so I spent a lot of time in the bowels of Harvard’s Countway Medical Library tracing back claims, often to find that they were nothing more than assumptions that had passed along from citation to citation). That has caused me to always try and keep an open mind and to be honest about what is really known v. hypothesized, something I encourage in my students as well. It also helped me to see how the field goes from research findings to public health recommendations and why we sometimes end up having to revise those recommendations—the evidence is always a lot less definitive than the guideline that results from it. Again this is knowledge that I bring to my teaching and mentoring so that my students aren’t left flat-footed when they open the paper to latest apparent “flip-flop.”

What did Tufts offer that truly paved the way to your success?

I’m not sure I can articulate any one thing. Again, because our class was the first we had to make our own way a bit more than others who have followed. But the connections have been important, as has just the name itself – it immediately identifies you as someone who comes from a very well-respected institution.

You mentioned previously that you appreciated the integration at Friedman. Can you talk more about that? How is that important? As a science student, I tend to put a veil on anything and everything that’s not science. And perhaps, some of the policy students do the same. What do you suggest?

First I think it’s important to realize that science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As a sociologist friend once said to me, “All knowledge is socially constructed,” meaning that you bring a lot of cultural influences to your work, whether you realize it or not. And there is a culture to science itself that dictates how you do your work, whether you like it or not. I think being aware of that aspect of what you do is important and it becomes most apparent when you view your discipline from an historical perspective, for example, how the field’s assumptions, assertions and actions have changed over time and why. While this is not directly related to why one ought to learn about policy specifically, it does help me answer the question that I get from students about why a biology major should have to take courses in anything but biology.

And as I said earlier, I think everyone in the field should have an understanding of how we got to the policy recommendations that we have today, and that means learning both history and science. For example, how did the early nutrition scientists and domestic scientists like John Harvey Kellogg, Wilbur Atwater, Catherine Beecher and Ellen Richards, shape our current approach to food policy? For example, do they help us understand why other cultures have a dietary guideline that says “Enjoy your food” and we don’t? And does that matter?

As a current expert in the field of Nutrition/Food Science, what advice do you have for current students? Where is the future of Nutrition Sciences heading? What should we focus on?

To me what makes nutrition such a great field is that it is so diverse. If pressed, I would say at “micro” level (as in basic science, not vitamins and minerals) the field of nutrigenomics looks fascinating. On the other hand, at the more “macro” level I see an emphasis on studying patterns of intake more than individual nutrients.

With the current economic situation and struggling job market, what opportunities do you see  available in the field?

The health reform act, should it remain intact, has many components to it that create employment potential for students with a nutrition background, especially for those who can develop and implement effective health education programs. The limitation for those not in the Frances Stern program may be the absence of the RD credential. But I think that there will still be opportunities for those with more of a public health background to work in community settings.

Today, Sarah focuses on service learning as an alternative approach for learning. You can read more about Sarah and how she ended up at Tufts through the alumni website: http://alumni.nutrition.tufts.edu/?pid=23&c=30

Hassan Dashti is a student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program. He is an international student from Kuwait, and completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Even since he started learning about nutrition science at Penn, he has been excited by the research taking place in this field.

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