When Toby Rossman was twelve, she was stocking shelves in the children’s clothing store her parents owned. By the time she was sixteen, she was working on the sales floor, and joining her dad on buying trips. Unlike many young girls, who may have been more interested in the latest fashions coming into vogue, Rossman became fascinated with the latest man-made fabrics of the era. Her curiosity about how Dacron and other synthetics such as rayon and nylon were made led her to write a term paper for her high school chemistry class. She researched polymers, the molecules that make up fibers used in the clothing she and her father were buying for the family store.
After this experience she contemplated becoming a science teacher. But Rossman soon realized that her forte was in experiments—exploring “how we know this” and how to prove it. As an undergraduate student at Washington Square College, NYU, she applied for graduate school and was told by her professor of organic chemistry that there was no room for women in science. Rossman was even more determined to go on to graduate school.
When it came time to take the examination for grad school, she scored especially high and went on to attend Brandeis, where she was fortunate to work with leaders in the field of biochemistry and microbiology. Her mentor, Dr. Jan Vilcek, was a pioneer in research involving interferon, a drug that boosts the immune system. Vilcek also developed Remicade, a drug for patients who are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, and psoriasis.
Research, writing, and travel
Enrolled in a pathology course, she became intrigued with the environmental causes of cancer. “People started to realize that cancer could be caused by environmental factors such as asbestos and ultra-violet light. I was interested in what was causing mutation and affecting cell division and how to control these processes,” says Rossman, who went on to earn her Ph.D. at the NYU School of Medicine.
When she had the opportunity to join the NYU Department of Environmental Medicine and further her research, Rossman applied and eventually got a position teaching at her alma mater, NYU Washington Square. During the course of her career, she has published more than 120 papers based on her research. Rossman also developed the first genetic toxicology course, which studies the effects of physical and chemical agents on DNA and the consequences of those actions.
Today, the course of study is used in schools throughout the United States. Later, she became director of NYU’s Institute of Environmental Medicine. She still occasionally teaches classes at Washington Square, but currently works mostly as a consultant to agencies such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization, as well as to the legal profession.
Passing on her “DNA”
Rossman is proud of the students she has mentored over the years. “I keep in touch with many of them,” she says. “It’s good to see them succeed.” One student is now head of drug enforcement (part of the Food and Drug Administration) in Taiwan. Others are professors in Toronto, and at CUNY and NYU. Some have careers in the pharmaceutical industry.
Rossman has travelled the world to teach and continue her research. In 1980, she was invited to teach and live in Stockholm for two months working with the Wallenberg Laboratory at the University of Stockholm. Thankfully, textbooks in Sweden are printed in English which made teaching Swedish students easier for the American Professor. Shopping was more difficult in Sweden. “You had to hope the canned food had pictures on it so you would know what you were buying,” she says.
In 1982, Rossman was awarded the Joseph Meyerhoff fellowship to work at the Weitzman Institute in Israel. She remained there for two months meeting and collaborating with scientists from all over the world. Two years later, she was invited to teach a genetic toxicology course in Beijing, China, where she had to give three 3-hour lectures each week, condensing a 15-week course into three weeks. To further complicate matters, each lecture had to be translated to Chinese sentence by sentence, an exhausting process.
Enviromental medicine is more prominent today than ever. Thanks to extensive studies, scientists have been able to connect environmental factors to certain cancers. “Molecular biology has made the connection,” says Rossman. She cites the example of people who have skin cancer. “They have a specific mutation caused by ultra violet exposure.”
Other studies make a definite connection between asbestos and lung cancer and mesothelioma, and between arsenic and skin, bladder, and lung cancers. One of the many papers Rossman has published shows how arsenic exposure causes definitive interference with DNA repair. Another demonstrates the effect of arsenic on the p53 gene, the body’s natural tumor suppressor. Rossman says arsenic is a substantial environmental threat in India, Bangladesh, Chile, China and Taiwan. In the United States, the problem is mainly in Nevada, Utah, and possibly in Arizona, where natural occurrences in drinking water and industrial exposure may pose a threat.
Life in the Valley
Rossman’s life is not completely wrapped up in environmental science. Her own environment is a charming farm house in Orange County that she shares with her husband of 20 years, Gordon Rauer, who owns Horsefeathers, an antique and art business in New Paltz.
One of Rossman’s passions is cooking, and as a fringe benefit of her travels, she has an extensive collection of cookbooks from all over the world. When family and friends are lucky enough to be invited to dinner, they never know which country’s cuisine will be represented on Rossman’s table.
Rossman and her husband f attend the theater and concerts in New York City, as well as supporting local community theater. She also sang with the Orange County Choral Society, plays the piano and grows her own herbs.
The couple travels for pleasure and has visited most of Europe, Japan, South Africa, Costa Rica, and China. Their next trip will be to the Dominican Republic.
Rossman says she loves living in the Hudson Valley and finds being in her home lowers her stress levels.
“I’ve done better work here,” she says. Asked if there are any threats in the local environment that Hudson Valley Life readers should be aware of, she pauses for just a moment. “Overeating!”
Anita Manley is a writer and cancer survivor living in Newburgh. She has written a number of profiles for Hudson Valley Life.
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