Paths Forward: Regional Chapter Programs Attracting Undergraduate Students to Toxicology

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How does one discover toxicology and, therefore, decide to be a toxicologist, as opposed to a biologist, chemist, or physicist? Are we influenced by the courses many of us take in our pre-university education? I was lucky: My mother was a science teacher, and my father was an engineer for a manufacturing company, so the combination of hearing about industrial products and participating in environmental stewardship projects pointed me directly down my path. However, I assume many undergraduates have never even heard of toxicology, let alone explored our science in the classroom or laboratory. Without the outreach efforts of programs, such as those championed by the SOT Education Committee, many young toxicologists might seek training and employment in another discipline. For this reason, the engagement and training of young scientists is an essential part of sustaining our active and vibrant toxicology community.

Undergraduate Students at the NESOT MeetingEach year at the SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo, the Society introduces undergraduates to toxicology through the Undergraduate Education Program, Undergraduate Diversity Program, student travel awards, and other activities. These programs have been largely successful, but in its 2015–2018 Strategic Plan, SOT identified the need for improvement in the recruitment, education, and professional development of the toxicology community—particularly with an emphasis on young scientists. As a result, SOT has been exploring opportunities to expand its undergraduate outreach efforts throughout the entire year. With many undergraduates unable to travel to the SOT Annual Meeting, due to issues such as lack of travel funding, the absence of a toxicology mentor, or the inability to commit to a week-long event due to school and work, the Undergraduate Education Subcommittee has begun implementing pilot programs exploring the inclusion of undergraduate students at SOT Regional Chapter meetings.

At its meeting this fall, the Northeast Regional Chapter (NESOT) hosted an undergraduate program, led by Larissa Williams, PhD, Bates College, and Joshua P. Gray, PhD, US Coast Guard Academy, who are members of the Undergraduate Education Subcommittee and mentor and teach undergraduate students. Undergraduate registration to the NESOT meeting was free and included a mentoring lunch with professionals from industry; a tour of the Charles River facilities, where the meeting was being held; and a special lecture and learning activity for undergraduates in addition to participation in the general meeting. This gave undergraduates the opportunity to participate in a scientific meeting, present their research, and also network with toxicology professionals. The NESOT meeting had more than 100 attendees from across the toxicology sectors around New England and added an additional 25 undergraduates to the attendance. While several undergraduates were able to travel to the meeting with mentors and graduate students, other students from diverse institution types, such as community colleges and colleges without toxicologists on the faculty, traveled with SOT members from other academic institutions. “The ultimate goal is to make undergraduates more aware of the great and diverse opportunities in toxicology early on in their college experience,” Dr. Williams shares.  

Undergraduate Students Tour the Charles River FacilityThe NESOT pilot program received overwhelmingly favorable reviews from the undergraduate attendees. The students especially enjoyed the mentorship component during the lunch, when small groups were paired with at least two professional toxicologists. Several of the students may receive additional benefits from the program: program leadership and host Charles River are working to extend internship opportunities to some of the undergraduates who attended the NESOT meeting. Ultimately, this program was made possible by generous funding from SOT, NESOT, and meeting sponsor Charles River. According to Dr. Williams, NESOT hopes to continue this program in subsequent years, expanding upon activities pertaining to professional development, including potentially adding a meet-and-greet with graduate program directors, similar to a component of the Undergraduate Education Program at the SOT Annual Meeting.

Early this month, the Ohio Valley Regional Chapter (OVSOT) also conducted special programming for undergraduates at its meeting, which has become a recurring feature for OVSOT over the last several years. OVSOT’s continued engagement with undergraduates will add further insight to the future of these programs for subsequent years.

The aim of these pilot programs is to attract students who otherwise may not know about toxicology, but reaching these students requires a dedicated outreach effort. Dr. Williams recommends that for outreach efforts—and, therefore, undergraduate programs—to be successful, one must “start recruiting early in advance of the meeting, use your network, and reach out to schools with little to no toxicology expertise.” Building these initial relationships with new schools can seem somewhat daunting, but there are several SOT-sponsored programs which can better facilitate these initial connections. SOT programs such as the Domestic and International ToxScholar Outreach Grants enable professional toxicologists to visit colleges and universities which currently lack toxicology programs and/or courses.

I hope that many of you reading this article will consider getting involved in the undergraduate initiatives led by SOT, by joining the Undergraduate Educator Network, by helping mentor undergraduates in your network, or by participating in outreach efforts such as the ToxScholar Outreach program.

Karilyn E. Sant, PhD, is a postdoctoral member of SOT and serves as the postdoctoral representative for the Molecular and Systems Biology Specialty Section. She is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

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