For her expertise in water systems and sanitation, decades-long career as a microbial risk assessor and water quality scientist, and her commitment to mentoring the next generation of public health practitioners, Charlotte Smith PhD ’12 has been selected as the 2019 Rosati Lecturer by the Division of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS).
“Charlotte Smith works in countless ways to connect the University to the world,” says Justin Remais, division head of EHS. “She was selected as Rosati Lecturer because of her tireless work to close the gap between research and practice, contribute new knowledge through her professional practice, and link her work to critical environmental health needs in business, government, and advocacy. Dr. Smith epitomizes the Rosati tradition.”
The lectureship honors Guido Rosati, an alumnus with deep ties to UC Berkeley. In 1978, after retiring as Chief of Industrial Hygiene and Health Physics at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Rosati joined the faculty at the School as a lecturer. He drew on his professional experience from his decorated career to guide students into their own careers as public health practitioners. After he passed away in 2011, the Rosati family initiated an endowment in his name to honor an exceptional lecturer to carry on his tradition of mentorship, connecting the classroom with real-world application. The EHS Division appoints a new Rosati Lecturer every two years.
Like Rosati, Smith came to the School after an established career. With degrees in microbiology and community health in hand, she started her career at the City of New York’s Department of Environmental Protection. Her role blended water science and public health, turning investigations of certain water contaminants into drinking water regulations for the city. From there, she developed a research program for New York City’s Demonstration Water Treatment Plant and eventually became the water quality director for the American subsidiary of French-based utility company Suez Environment, where she was responsible for ensuring that 35 water utilities in 15 states complied with Safe Drinking Water Act regulations. She and her husband went on to launch a successful utilities consulting business, which led to her service on a National Academy of Sciences committee to advise the Environmental Protection Agency on risks in drinking water distribution systems.
In 2012, she earned her PhD in environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley, researching the microbial ecology of waterborne pathogens—specifically, E. coli and bacterivore protozoa—in drinking water. As she continues with her professional practice, Smith has established her reputation as a critical expert on microbial water contamination. For example, after Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast in 2017, reporters from The New York Times reached out to Smith to analyze data they had collected on disease-carrying bacteria in the floodwaters that persisted in the Houston area.
Smith began designing coursework as a PhD candidate—creating a course called Drinking Water and Health, which she still teaches today. The course uses a new case study each week to explore the contaminants and contexts of waterborne diseases, and to urge students to arrive at policy recommendations as they work on class projects. Her goal as the 2019 Rosati Lecturer—in this course and others including Applied Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Intro to Environmental Health Sciences—is to help students apply research to solutions.
“My students learn the tools and techniques that public health practitioners use,” she says.
“I love the way she approaches learning,” says Lujain Al-Saleh, a first-year MPH student currently enrolled in Drinking Water and Health. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in grades and perfection. But for her, that’s not all that learning is about. It’s about interacting with the material.”
For Al-Saleh, Smith’s interdisciplinary approach to public health and water has inspired the first steps in her career beyond the classroom. This summer, Smith will serve as preceptor for her and two other graduate students on a water quality project in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The project will use GIS mapping, qualitative surveys, and water sampling to explore a possible connection between the water supply and endemic chronic kidney and diarrheal diseases in the area.
“Working with Charlotte has already given me hands-on experience on water projects that I care about,” says Al-Saleh, “which gives me an avenue to figure out what to pursue in a long-term career.”
Hannah Peters, a first-year MPH student in EHS, will also spend the summer working on the Jalisco project. “Charlotte has been a proponent of students’ success,” she says. “I feel honored to be one of those students that she’s invested in.”
As Rosati Lecturer, Smith will continue to support students as they tackle an array of environmental problems, from air pollution and worker health to biomarker development and vector-borne diseases. She knows the value of mentorship, having received invaluable training from practitioners and water experts in the American Water Works Association and elsewhere throughout her career.
“My advice to students: Never say no to an opportunity,” Smith says, “and keep the perspective on what’s important.”
By Austin Price