by Maryann B. Brinley
Mark Robson, PhD, MPH, knows Thailand well. Since 1995, he's been teaching as a visiting professor several times each year in Bangkok in the International Environmental Science Graduate Program at Chulalongkorn University and also collaborating on projects with his Rutgers grad school classmate and good friend, Dr. Prasert Chitapong, president of Prince of Songkla University (PSU) in Southern Thailand. "We were in the plant science program together more than 25 years ago," explains this associate professor, assistant dean, and chair of environmental and occupational health in UMDNJ's School of Public Health (SPH).
Robson's research focus on exposures to pesticides takes him all over the world. For example, he is a United Nations Science Advisor for World Information Transfer, an advisor at the European Centre for Occupational Health, Safety and Environment in Glasgow, Scotland, and you can also find him in Cluj, Romania at the Environmental Health Centre. Thailand seems to hold a special place for him, however, and he already had plans in motion for a February 1 arrival and a month of teaching his three-credit course on environmental risk assessment to approximately 50 PhD and MS students when the tsunami struck on December 26, 2004.
Even before the tsunami, Ajarn Mark had been approved for a 2005 Fulbright by the U.S. State Department for a new Thai project. (Over there, Ajarn is a common term of respect for a university professor and Thais prefer to use first names versus last.) As a Fulbright Senior Specialist, Robson was being asked to develop a South East Asian Center for Environmental Health that would serve as a focal point for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Fogarty Center and bring together PSU, UMDNJ and Rutgers University with faculty from Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. When the tsunami wreaked havoc on miles of the Thai coastline, those initial plans for a risk center with projects on environmental contaminants and cancer shifted to include an impact study of the disaster area. "I was asked to review various reports from different teams and to develop a proposal," he explains. This report -"A Multi-disciplinary Long Term Study on the Environmental Effects of the Tsunami Region in Phuket"- completed before his arrival back in New Jersey on March 2, offered Robson "a unique opportunity to do a really interesting study and recommend better planning, improvement of infrastructure and some better services." Hundreds of aid groups are working in the area and monetary donations to the country have exceeded $3 billion.
Along with PSU faculty and students, he toured the area in early February along the coast near Phang nga and Phuket for a site assessment. "The level of destruction and devastation is almost impossible to describe. Two months after the tsunami, thousands remain homeless and thousands are still searching for their loved ones. Yet, it is amazing how resilient these people are." This region was among the worst hit areas according to local officials, with more than 10,000 people affected there - 3,000 killed and another 7,000 displaced. "Our first stop after six hours by van was the 'Wat' - Thai for Buddhist temple - that had been converted to a morgue and identification center. Seeing the boards with photos of victims was a grim and sobering experience. There were four to six photos of each corpse. Persons were divided by gender with a separate section for small children. I was overwhelmed with emotion."
Known by his students as the Ajarn with the kind eyes, Robson was impressed with the clinics, especially the huge inflatable facilities, set up to treat survivors. "The issues are and will continue to be clean water and safe food," he says. Large containers of food sent to the area have spoiled and gastrointestinal problems from tainted goods are occurring. Skin and eye infections are also common. In one clinic, medical students from PSU were taking histories and recording patients' vital signs. "A nurse I spoke to was from Hartford, the doctor was from San Francisco, the pharmacist was from Amsterdam and a psychologist was from Australia."
As a visitor, even a regular one, in a foreign culture, Robson knows he is an outsider who must always be respectful of societal and political differences. He wonders, "How much do they really want my opinion and will they take my advice?" For instance, the temporary housing in more than 20 communities "may provide shelter but many are plywood divided homes with little or no ventilation and when you add a metal roof, you have what ends up being an oven." On bulldozed tracts of multimillion dollar resort land, now cleared of debris, random rebuilding is taking place where some intervention or zoning would be preferable. "You may be right but that is not the Thai way," Robson was told by his hosts.
Yet, one of his experiences underscored a universal truth: the happiness generated by ice cream. When a resilient ice cream vendor showed up in the disaster zone, Ajarn Mark didn't think twice about buying cones for kids. But he was a bit surprised about a slight Thai twist to this treat.
"Look," he says, pointing to a series of photographs taken of this incident. "Can you see what's going into the cone before the ice cream? It's rice."