At the heart of food and water safety is the research that informs our agricultural community. Channah Rock, a Professor of Environmental Sciences and a Water Quality Specialist with University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension, shares her insight as an industry expert.
What do you primarily study?
I’m a water quality specialist and a microbiologist. I focus on pathogens in the environment - how they got there and how to prevent them from causing harm. We work with food safety professionals, growers and irrigation districts to better manage their water resources. Right now, we are doing a lot of water treatment. I also work with drinking water and wastewater municipalities to better understand their treatment processes.
What is the biggest challenge you face every day?
We have lots of challenges, I think the biggest challenge is that change is hard. Sometimes we want the science to drive the decision making and the science to drive change, whether that's a new treatment process or a new harvesting mechanism, and I think it takes time to first instill trust in our stakeholders. Once we have their trust, then they’ll be more accepting of some of the science and eventually we can see change, but it takes time to build those relationships.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part is when we see that change, when we have that ‘ah-ha!’ moment with any of our stakeholders or when we know we have helped them in a way that is going to protect public health or reduce their costs and make their lives better--I love that part of our job.
What do you think your most significant research finding has been thus far?
We’ve made some pretty big strides in better understanding how pathogens move throughout the environment and what practices are risky and what practices are not. We do a lot of work through the Center for Produce Safety to better understand how we collect irrigation water samples or how we treat irrigation water to protect public health. Through that we have been able to shed light on [for example] canal maintenance. If you wait 24 hours [after the maintenance], you’re going to be good to irrigate. It’s data like that where I think growers can use that information to their benefit.
The biggest misconception is that a lot of people think all E.coli are pathogenic or all E.coli can cause harm. Actually there is only a small subset of E.coli that are considered pathogens that we have to worry about. What we try to do through our research is to better understand the environment. When we fall into risky periods of time, that’s when we need to pay attention and our work can make a difference.