2010 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Major: Physical Anthropology
Age: 38 | Menlo Park, California
Science and Medical Reporter
"My UW experience was more than strict academics. It taught me about life."
As a way to stay healthy, people go out of their way to eat foods that are fat-free. But how many people stop to consider if their plastic food containers are BPA-free?
We all should. Because whether we're watching our weight or not, the foods we eat might not be as unhealthy for us as the containers we're eating out of. That's what Susanne Rust and her colleague at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uncovered during their ongoing investigative series "Chemical Fallout."
Thanks to Rust's work, research revealed toxic levels of bisphenol-A (BPA) were found in common household plastic containers billed as "microwave safe." Her dogged coverage of this issue prompted PBS broadcaster Bill Moyers to compare Rust's reporting with that of legendary muckraker Upton Sinclair.
It also led to Rust and her colleague becoming Pulitzer finalists, "for their powerful revelations that the government was failing to protect the public from dangerous chemicals in everyday products, such as some microwave-safe' containers, stirring action by Congress and federal agencies."
None of these actions and accolades would have been possible if it wasn't for her UW-Madison education, however. When Rust arrived on campus in 1995, she had one goal: to finish her PhD in anthropology by 2000.
That never happened, as she fell in love with a fellow grad student, bought a home, and got married. Tragically, her husband lost a fight with cancer and died in February 2000. Heartbroken and feeling hopeless, Rust was kept afloat by her relationships with her UW professors and classmates.
And it was in the fall of 2000 that her UW adviser, Karen Strier, convinced Rust to take a journalism class. "The idea and field were foreign to me, but Strier was sure it was something I would love and excel in," says Rust. "She was right."
Those classes helped Rust realize that she could use her science expertise and research skills to help others through writing. And in 2003, Rust began her journalism career as a science reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, covering endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda, civil engineering in Rwanda and sustainable agriculture in Costa Rica.
From there, she put her reporting and investigative abilities to work at improving public health. This switch resulted in Rust's startling BPA findings and other hard-hitting stories involving toxic chemicals in consumer products.
"I have worked to educate people about science through journalism," she says. "And it was at the UW that I found my calling."