The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Robert Tanguay Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

April 21, 2017


Robert Leonard Tanguay was born in 1966 and spent his early childhood in Menominee, Michigan. During his high school years, his family moved to southern California where he graduated from high school. Coming from a blue collar background, Tanguay's early education was primarily vocational in nature.

As an undergraduate, Tanguay focused on a pre-medical curriculum, first at Riverside Community College and then at California State - San Bernardino. Tanguay graduated from San Bernardino in 1988 with a BS in Biology, all the while having maintained regular employment at a local furniture warehouse. Tanguay had not considered a career in science until a professor at San Bernardino encouraged him to take a two-year internship at the City of Hope National Cancer Institute in Duarte, California. While working at City of Hope, Tanguay came into contact with scientific colleagues who continued to influence his shift in career ambitions.

This shift became complete during Tanguay's years as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where he studied Biochemistry from 1990 to 1995. Tanguay focused his doctoral research on the fundamentals of gene expression regulations, developing approaches and tools that ultimately led to a more sophisticated model of RNA. Afterward, while working as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Tanguay began to explore the possibilities of using zebrafish as a model for toxicology. This model has driven much of his scientific inquiry in the years since.

Tanguay's first academic appointment was as an assistant professor was at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, where he was located from 1999-2003. His research during this time period incorporated the zebrafish model as a means for understanding processes as varied as tissue regeneration, ethanol consumption during pregnancy, and nicotine toxicity on the central nervous system. When the growth of his research crowded out the laboratory space afforded him at the University of Colorado, Tanguay became open to an invitation to come to Oregon State University; he made the move in 2003.

In the years since, Tanguay has worked in OSU's Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology as Director of the Aquatic Facility. Leading what is now called the Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory, Tanguay has overseen renovation of nearly the entire building, with a heavy emphasis placed on automating processes to both increase research efficiency and enable more critical thinking by staff and students. In 2009, Tanguay was awarded the Director Challenge Grant, a major award issued by the Environmental Protection Agency that supported the testing of 1,200 compounds across concentrations, and led to the collection of data from a half a million fish in less than two months.

Over the course of his time at OSU, Tanguay has deployed his zebrafish model to help identify chemicals of concern to biological development in humans. As an outgrowth of this work, Tanguay has also used his research as a platform to speak to regulators and private companies on issues of biosafety in commercial development. In 2011, he was named an OSU Distinguished Professor, the highest honor that the university bestows upon members of its faculty.