George E. Rottinghaus, a clinical professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), received the 2017 MU International Engagement Award, an honor that recognizes outstanding MU faculty, staff and students for work with an international impact.
Rottinghaus, PhD, is an analytical chemist and clinical professor of toxicology who performs research at the CVM’s Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (VMDL). Shuping Zhang, director of the VMDL and a professor of veterinary pathobiology, nominated Rottinghaus for the award.
Zhang, PhD, MS, ACVM, noted in her nomination that Rottinghaus “has hosted and provided training for international students for more than 10 years,” and “developed strong teaching and research collaborations with a number of colleagues around the world.”
Rottinghaus has trained visiting scholars from Ethiopia, Guyana, India, Mozambique, Nigeria, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea and Spain in his laboratory. The list of international universities and institutes that collaborate with Rottinghaus on research projects is nearly as long. He has traveled to many of those countries, plus Costa Rica, Mexico, the Netherlands and New Zealand to teach, research, help with grants and establish working relationships.
The measure of Rottinghaus’ international respect is perhaps greatest in Brazil, particularly with colleague Carlos Augusto Oliveira and the University of Sao Paulo (USP) campus in Pirassununga. In addition to his duties at MU’s CVM, Rottinghaus is an adjunct professor in the Department of Food Engineering (FZEA) at USP–Pirassununga.
Since 2014, the department’s research facilities have carried Rottinghaus’ name, in tribute to his commitment to collaborative research and teaching, and his impact on mycotoxin research.
“When Dr. Oliveira first told me about naming the facilities, I thought he was kidding,” Rottinghaus remarked. “I told him, ‘I’m not giving you any money; you can just forget that.’ My daughter, who works at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, found out about it and said, ‘Dad, you’re not even dead yet.’
“The only reason he did that was because I told him what a mycotoxin is,” Rottinghaus says with a smile. “He didn’t know what a mycotoxin was. Had no idea. We taught them about mycotoxins, and now he has a full career based on mycotoxins. So, I think he just did it as appreciation for getting him into mycotoxins. It’s not a big deal — it’s not like having your name on the business school — but I appreciate it.”
Rottinghaus’ field is toxicology and his focus is mycotoxins, toxic metabolites produced by organisms of the fungus kingdom. They are capable of causing disease and death in humans and animals. The term mycotoxin is usually reserved for the toxic chemical products produced by fungi that readily colonize crops.
“Dr. Rottinghaus’ current research program involves the investigation into the effects of mycotoxin contamination of animal feed ingredients and an evaluation of methods to detoxify contaminated feedstuffs,” Zhang explains. “Mycotoxin contamination of livestock feedstuffs is a major concern of the livestock industry worldwide. It has been estimated that up to 25 percent of the world’s food crops may be contaminated with mycotoxins and mycotoxin-contaminated grains have been estimated to cost U.S. grain handlers and the livestock industry several hundred million dollars annually.”
“During my PhD at Iowa State, I worked with natural products, isolating compounds from plants, that sort of stuff, so the mycotoxins were kind of the same thing,” Rottinghaus says. “They are a little different organism, but these mycotoxins are natural products. I did a post-doc in toxicology at the Iowa State Vet School, which is exactly the same thing I have here, in the diagnostic lab in toxicology.
“In 1980, a job became available here,” Rottinghaus says. “They needed a chemist in the toxicology lab here at Missouri, because they’d never had one.”
“My position here is very weird,” Rottinghaus continues. “There’s no training for it. You don’t find someone off the street who does all this kind of stuff. I just jumped at a job like this, where I still got to play with native products.”
THE BRAZILIAN CONNECTION
During his years at MU, Rottinghaus has developed a collegial relationship with David Ledoux, an emeritus professor of animal nutrition at MU’s Animal Science Research Center.
“Dr. Ledoux had the Brazilian connection to start with,” Rottinghaus says. “I went with him to Brazil and met some of the people in food science and engineering. That got the relationship started about 10 years ago.”
Rottinghaus teaches a graduate course on Methods for Mycotoxin Analysis of Foods every other year in Brazil. He co-teaches the course with Oliveira and gives additional lectures in the Animal Science Department and the Veterinary School as part of a separate mycotoxin course offered by Ledoux. Rottinghaus also offers training and expertise to graduate students working in the mycotoxin research area under Oliveria and Professors Andrezza Fernandez and Carlos Corasin. He is a major contributor to a three-year grant led by Oliveira.
“Their school system is different from ours,” Rottinghaus explains. “In the U.S. we go to school through high school for free, then we pay for college. At USP-Pirassununga, everyone there took a test after high school and came out in the top 5 percent of the country. The entire school is 5-percenters who go to school for free. To get that education, their parents had to pay for their kids to go to high school. Most of those students went to private school to get to that point.”
Another key difference between higher education in the U.S. and in Brazil paved the way for close collaboration between Rottinghaus and his peers in Pirassununga.
“Theirs is a five-year program. Built into that program are internships, usually three or six months, sometimes up to a year,” Rottinghaus says. “The students have to leave the academic world and go do an internship in order to get their degree. They’ll do one or two internship during their five-year program. So, they needed places to put a whole bunch of people.”
Some of the students go to Europe for internships, but many come to the U.S. Students in the Department of Food Engineering often find internships at food companies, but they can also work in a research lab to fulfill their requirement.
“With me being an analytical chemist, and analyzing food and feed stuffs, they could come here and get training on analyzing for compounds in food or feed,” Rottinghaus states. “There’s nothing magical about the mycotoxin. If you know how to analyze for it, you can analyze for something else very easily if you know how to use the equipment. A lot of our Brazilian visiting scholars get jobs because of the analytical training they received here. It may not be mycotoxins, but it’s the same methodology, the same equipment.”
During the past 10 years, Rottinghaus has worked with a total of 40 students from USP-Pirassununga. The most recent of the visiting scholars are graduate student Larissa Tuanny Franco and undergraduate Amanda Chan Cirelli. Franco first came here as an undergraduate for a six-month internship.
“In Brazil, I worked with mycotoxins and my teacher told me about George,” Franco says. “I came here and I loved it. Now, I am here doing my PhD with mycotoxins because I really liked the last experience I had here. Before I came here the first time, I imagined I would end up working in a factory. My first experience here changed my mind. Now, I’ll be working in a laboratory, and maybe be a professor someday. If I had the opportunity, I would come back here. I like living here.”
Cirelli is heading to the University of California-Davis for a research internship, then will return to Brazil in December to finish her degree. “My plan is to come back and do my grad school here,” she says.
When the inevitable question of “why mycotoxins?” comes up, Cirelli is succinct.
“We work with natural substances that can kill a human or animal,” she says. “We also work with natural materials that can absorb and neutralize deadly substances. That’s just so cool, and it’s really important when you think about it.”
“Most people who work with chickens, pigs or cows know about mycotoxins,” Franco explains. “Most other people have no idea. In Brazil, I went to a lot of farms that plant corn. There are a lot of mycotoxins in corn, but many of the people who work on the farms have no idea about mycotoxins.
“We receive a lot of samples from all over,” Franco says. “We prepare the samples for high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and we now work with mass spectrometry. In the HPLC, I see if the sample absorbs the mycotoxin.”
“Industry farms out a lot of work to the university,” Rottinghaus says. “Why have your own animal trials that run three months, and then have nothing to do for the facilities or the people who work there for the other nine months? So, they bring their project to the university. That’s what I do with my equipment. Other people here on campus, other campuses around the U.S., and other institutions around the world send samples here.
“We get publications out of their work because they could not have done that work without sending it here,” Rottinghaus continues. “We do odd stuff. Some of the stuff we do, virtually no one else does, just us. This is where the visiting scholars from Brazil come in – they run the samples.”
Rottinghaus advises that care must be taken with the internships.
“Some companies bring people in for 12 months, don’t pay them anything and really work them,” he says. “That’s not what these programs were set up to do, but you could easily take advantage of the situation and get free labor.
“We pay them, and we give them free time to travel or do other things to experience our culture,” according to Rottinghaus. “They come in at 9 or 9:30 and go home at 3:30 or 4. But, I have work I have to get done, and they’re in here every day. They’ll put in eight hours if they have to get something done, and they will get it done. They’re reliable and they work really hard.”
EVEN THE PARENTS CALL HIM DAD
In return for their hard work, Rottinghaus gives the international students plenty of time off to explore their temporary home.
“I take them to the outlet mall at the Lake of the Ozarks,” Rottinghaus says. “We get down there at 9 a.m., and at 5 p.m. they’re still not ready to go. Those red benches become my home down there.
“They want to see New York, but I tell them they need to see the Jacks Fork and Current rivers. You need to put Eminence, Missouri, right up there with New York,” he says. “I take them all down there for three days, rafting on the river, seeing the big springs and all that stuff. I take them all over the place.”
“He’s your boss, he’s your friend, and he’s like your dad,” Franco adds.
“I call him all the time,” Cirelli says. “‘George, can you help me with this?’ He is really great.”
“Even the parents call me ‘Dad’,” Rottinghaus beams.
THE FINAL WORD
“The strong international program that Dr. Rottinghaus has developed between the University of Missouri and the University of Sao Paulo should be used as a model for developing international relations with other universities worldwide,” Zhang said in her nomination. “Dr. Rottinghaus’ sustained commitments to international work and his great achievements in training international students and scholars should be recognized by the entire MU system.”