Mary Kay O’Rourke, Ph.D.
People come to exposure science through a variety of paths. Dr. O’Rourke is a geologist by training. She worked briefly as a stratigrapher with a natural gas exploration company in 1972 and completed her Master of Science degree in Geosciences at the University of Arizona in 1976. Her thesis evaluated past climate, using pollen grains as ecological indicators. Her first dietary paper identified plants consumed by an extinct mountain goat! Her migration to human exposure assessment began when she started working with Dr. Michael Lebowitz (past president of ISES). As a geoscientist, she was interested in how pollen represented the vegetation in fossil deposits (taphonomy). Atmospheric pollen assessment from her dissertation was used to evaluate the role of pollen exposure as one of several contaminants affecting lung function in humans. Following the completion of her Ph.D. in 1986 (Geosciences, University of Arizona), she joined the Division of Respiratory Sciences, in the Department of Medicine at the University of Arizona. Dr. O’Rourke is a member of both the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center (SWESHEC), and the Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research (CIEHR) as Director of the Exposure Science Core and Co-lead on the Hopi Environmental Health Project. She jointed ISEA, now ISES, in 1995; she served as a Councilor from 2000-2003, and a Co-Chair of the annual meeting held in Tucson, AZ in 2005.
In the 1980’s she worked with a team on several projects evaluating exposures to a variety of contaminants (PM10 & 2.5, pollen, mold spores, NOx, formaldehyde) and factors (household characteristics, elevation, temperature, relative humidity) that affect lung function and asthma exacerbation. She focused on the infiltration of contaminants into typical home environments. She was a Co-PI on the EPA funded National Human Exposure Assessment Survey in Arizona (NHEXAS-AZ) and the Arizona Border Survey (ABS) during the 1990’s. These were multimedia, multipathway exposure assessment surveys of Arizona and the Arizona/Mexico Border area. Early evaluation indicated that arsenic was found in most media samples. As data became available, the team modeled aggregate total arsenic exposures and linked them to urinary arsenic biomarkers. The upper quartile of the aggregate exposures was associated with either residence in a community with a large copper mine, or consumption of fish within the last four days. She pursued her interest in dietary arsenic exposure with EPA STAR funding in 2009, and she continues to collaborate on arsenic exposure with the Hopi Tribe.
Her work with NHEXAS and ABS lead to an interest in children’s exposure to organophosphate pesticide funded by two EPA STAR awards from 2000-2006. Community partners identified and recruited children 2-5 years of age. Pesticide exposure was modeled for each child based on environmental exposures; urinary biomarkers were also measured. Patricia Sánchez Lizardi followed the children as they entered school and administered WISC and Trails tests. Children scored well on the WISC test; but those with elevated biomarkers performed slowly on the TRAILS test suggesting an impact from the pesticide exposure.
In 2000, Dr. O’Rourke became a charter member in what is today the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona. She was chair of the Environmental and Occupational Health educational program from 2000-2015. In 2009, she led the effort to develop the Environmental Health Sciences M.S. and Ph.D. program in the College. Over the years, she taught Introduction to Environmental and Occupational Health at the undergraduate level and Environmental and Occupational Health, and Environmental and Occupational Epidemiology among other courses at the graduate level. She officially retired in 2018, and is now a Professor emeritus. She continues to work on research grants and serves on graduate committees. She is in the office most days and views exposure science as a career that she loves and will pursue as long as possible.
Crystal Romeo Upperman
Anne M. Riederer
Yuri Bruinen De Bruin
Zhi-Hua (Tina) Fan
Sung Roul Kim
Natalie von Gotz