Sarah Ash, PhD, MS
Professor and Coordinator, Undergraduate Nutrition Program
Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences
Coordinator, Undergraduate Nutrition Program
North Carolina State University
Professor Sarah Ash grew up in Connecticut, the child of two academics in psychology who filled their house with interesting people and ideas. Though she didn’t start out intending to be a professor herself, the lifestyle and intellectual rigor has made for a fulfilling career. She pursued a major in biology, but was uninterested in the pre-med track. She loved studying evolutionary biology, but wanted something that was more “in the news” (the Scopes Monkey Trial was almost 50 years old; evolution was not the hot-button issue that it is again today).
In her sophomore year, a friend was taking a nutrition class and Dr. Ash checked out her textbook, finding it the practical application of biology and chemistry she was looking for. While Harvard didn’t have a nutrition bachelor’s program, they did have a graduate program in the School of Public Health where she was able to take classes in public health nutrition and nutritional biochemistry from pioneering nutritionists such as D. Mark Hegsted. She also knocked on doors looking for a chance to do some research, and Professor Stanley Gershoff put together a project for her in his lab studying the effects of dietary components on liver enzyme activity. He went on to be the first dean of the Tufts University School of Nutrition and an ongoing mentor.
Shortly after graduation, Dr. Ash got married and worked in three different labs in the four years before she went to graduate school at Tufts to get a Ph.D. in Nutrition. “It was good to get real world experience before going on to graduate school” she said in a recent interview. She gave birth to her second child three days before defending her dissertation. While she had the opportunity to become a registered dietitian, she decided it wasn’t necessary, a decision that she continues to feel was correct. “It would have been helpful to have internship experience in order to teach medical nutrition therapy” she said, “but it isn’t a course that is necessary in our program.”
A “creature of her own generation” she followed her husband to several new cities over the years, ending up in Raleigh, North Carolina for his job in 1988. And, it seemed a good fit as they had wanted to live somewhere with less commuting, and an easier life for a family; plus Dr. Ash knew that she would likely be able to find a job at one of the 3 research-intensive universities in the area. Dr. Ash sent out many letters of inquiry, but a break finally came when a neighbor connected her with a lab doing cholesterol research at North Carolina State University. “I was a glorified lab technician, but I needed to start somewhere.” That was her entry into NCSU and 6 months later, she was hired as a lecturer to teach the introductory human nutrition course, a job she became aware of as a result of networking with its former instructor.
In those early years, she took on additional unpaid responsibilities and activities, making herself indispensable to the department and to the creation of a tenure-track position. Now 27 years later, Dr. Ash is a full professor with dozens of published works, teaching awards, and thousands of students who have come through her program. Her primary scholarship arose from advising students through service-learning projects. There wasn’t a method for preparing them for the experience, and evaluating the learning that took place. She and a colleague developed a guide to lead students through the process called the DEAL Model for Critical Reflection. “I have been really happy in the field: I love working with students, teaching, and advising,” she said. And like her parents before her, the university is a community of interesting people and good friends.
Take time off between college and graduate school to get some real world experience. Listen to your instincts. Don’t expect the perfect job just out of college: take a job, do more than you are asked, and show them that you are responsible. Network.