As an undergraduate biology major at Harvard, Sarah Ash wasn’t interested in going to medical school. It wasn’t until her roommate brought home a textbook from a summer class that Ash discovered what she really wanted to do.
"I remember thinking that this is where it all comes together–the chemistry and the biochemistry, the physiology and the genetics," said Ash, N82, NG86, associate professor of nutrition in the Department of Food Science at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
The textbook came from an introductory nutrition course Jean Mayer taught at the Harvard Extension School in the summer of 1974. That fall, Ash’s academic advisor suggested she satisfy her new-found enthusiasm for the field by cross-registering at Harvard’s School of Public Health. It was there that Ash met Stanley Gershoff, also a professor at Harvard, who assigned Ash a research project on liver enzyme metabolism. (Mayer became president of Tufts in 1976, and when he decided to found a nutrition school, he tapped Gershoff as its first dean.)
Gershoff "took me under his wing and made a little project for me," Ash said. "He didn’t have to take that time, but he made a huge difference in my professional career."
After working as a lab technician for several years in Virginia and Illinois, Ash eventually wound up back in Boston. In the fall of 1981, she matriculated as a member of the nutrition school’s first class. Pursuing her interest in liver enzyme activity, she studied the effects of age and estrogen on vitamin D metabolism in rats as a researcher in the lab of Dr. Barry Goldin, a professor at Tufts’ nutrition and medical schools.
By the time she completed her Ph.D. in 1986, she was a married mother of two. When her husband’s job took the family to North Carolina, a neighbor helped her find work in a biochemistry lab at North Carolina State. It wasn’t exactly what Ash had in mind.
Ash introduced herself to a woman who taught the only human nutrition course on campus and let her know of her own interest in teaching. Within six months, the instructor left her post. Despite university officials’ initial concerns that a graduate of Jean Mayer’s school might be a vegetarian (the course was offered through the animal science department), Ash landed the lectureship.
"I established myself as a good instructor and advisor and managed to create a tenure track position for myself as a result," she said. "I always tell my students to make cold calls, walk up to people, knock on doors. That’s basically how I got this job."
Today, her research focuses on service learning, which gives students the opportunity to apply course material in community settings. Students are best able to meet the goals of service learning—which include personal growth and civic engagement—through reflection on their service-related activities, Ash said. But few good models exist to guide them.
"Service learning often puts students in unfamiliar situations with unfamiliar people," she said,"and poor-quality reflection can reinforce the biases and preconceived notions that students bring to those experiences."
Ash and a colleague are about to publish a student tutorial and instructor’s guide based on a framework for reflection that they have developed over the past two years.
Her interests in areas outside the traditional domain of nutrition can be traced to her time at Tufts, where she most appreciated the way the nutrition program managed to integrate social sciences with biochemistry and physiology.
"That experience made me realize early on that a scientist needs more than knowledge of her discipline-specific scientific principles," she said. "She needs to understand the context and the broader implications of that knowledge to society."