Award-winning microbiologist Channah Rock is in the business of keeping our food safe. Fortunately for us, she loves her job.
As professor and water quality extension specialist at the University of Arizona in the Department of Environmental Science, Rock works at the university’s 2,000-acre Maricopa Agricultural Center, a research farm in central Arizona, which grows leafy greens, cotton and biofuel crops.
Farmers, state agencies regulating agriculture and water quality, municipal water providers and irrigation districts all benefit from her research.
“I provide industry with the knowledge, skills, tools and awareness to make informed decisions about their water resources,” said Rock, who evaluated surface water for pathogens and organisms like E. coli as an undergrad at New Mexico State University. At Arizona State University, where she earned her PhD, her focus widened to include biosolids, water reuse and wastewater treatment.
She soon realized her expertise and passion for “boots on the ground” work on water quality and food safety could help the produce industry.
“My favorite days are spent in the field collecting water samples, surveying fields of greens and relaying new food safety or water quality information through in-person workshops, teaching and training,” she said.
“I’m constantly amazed at our growers’ dedication to producing safe, nutritious vegetables.”
Rock also loves the “ah ha” moment when a stakeholder learns something new that helps them save money, implement a new best-management practice or share information that leads to enhanced food safety and, ultimately, the protection of public health.
Though it is challenging, she notes, to make funding organizations realize that changing behavior is a slow process that can take years.
“I often hear, ‘Just tell me what to do,’ she said. “Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to food safety; my recommendations are site-specific.”
She also regularly sets people straight about E. coli.
“A lot of folks think that all E. coli bacteria are pathogenic,” she said. “In fact, only a small subset cause negative health impacts.”
Rock’s arrival as a graduate student at Dr. Jean McLain’s U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in 2005 marked the start of a long friendship.
“Channah is bright, enthusiastic and energetic,” said McLain, now an associate dean at UA. “In the past 15 years she has mentored dozens of students who now work as educators, wastewater professionals and agricultural producers. Her students truly love her, and the feeling is mutual.”
McLain said Rock’s tireless work as a go-between between the FDA and Arizona growers was invaluable in finding potential causes of the 2018 E. coli outbreak.
“Farmers trust her, which is incredibly valuable in a crisis.”
When growers began irrigating with recycled wastewater, Rock’s research on its safety and quality was groundbreaking, said her mentor. Rock even organized a competition among Arizona brewers to see who could make the finest beer out of purified wastewater.
“The project was a resounding success,” said McLain, “and increased acceptance of new state regulations.”
As well as being passionate about her work, Rock stresses the importance of good communication skills to the students and staff who work with her in Cooperative Extension.
She advises women interested in science careers to find supportive colleagues and seek out established mentors, both men and women, to be a sounding board for questions, concerns and research plans.
“I’ve had, and continue to have, amazing scientists, specialists and industry members as mentors,” she said. “Without their support and guidance I would not be where I am today.”
Read more about The Packer's 2020 Women in Produce honorees:
Women in Produce — Erica Renaud
Women in Produce — Danyel O'Connor
Women in Produce — Janis McIntosh
Women in Produce — Denise Junqueiro
Women in Produce — Trish James
Women in Produce — Julie DeWolf
Women in Produce — Sandra Aguilar