The Journey of a First-Generation Mexican American to Leadership in the Society of Toxicology

By Daniel Acosta posted 10-26-2023 11:58


This essay is the first in an intended series designed to celebrate SOT member diversity and showcase the diverse pathways and experiences of its members.

Patricia and Daniel Acosta Jr.

As a poor, first-generation Mexican American boy growing up in El Paso during the 1950s and 1960s, I knew what it meant when my father was sometimes unemployed as a carpenter and how our family had to be careful with our expenses. I also believed that it was easier for me to be accepted by my white classmates and teachers by minimizing my Mexican heritage by refusing to speak Spanish at home and school. I regret that I tried to get away from my Mexican roots because as I grew older and more experienced, I realized that my Mexican culture was something to be proud of—although that did not mean that I would not face challenges because of it.

I had excellent high school grades in biology and chemistry and thought that a career in medicine or pharmacy would eliminate my childhood worries about money. During pharmacy school, several of my professors encouraged me to think about a career in pharmacology and toxicology. I was drafted before I could start graduate school, but during my free time in the US Army, I did a lot of library research on what toxicology was all about. I also communicated by letter with my selected PhD advisor at the University of Kansas, who was just beginning research in the relatively new field of in vitro toxicology. He encouraged me to select that area of research for my PhD dissertation.

After finishing my two years in the Army and completing my PhD at the University of Kansas, I accepted a position as an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas in 1974. Unfortunately, I was told several times by my supervisors that the only reason I was hired was because of affirmative action and that the college needed to hire more Hispanics and Blacks. These interactions did not have their intended effect—they made me stronger and more determined to prove that I was worthy of being a professor at the University of Texas.

During my 22 years at Texas, I helped develop one of the first graduate programs in toxicology in the state and mentored over 50 undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral fellows in my research program. Many of my students were women, Hispanics, Asians, and Blacks. I became Dean of Pharmacy at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where I established one of the first councils on diversity at the university. In the final phase of my career, I accepted a position as Deputy Director for Research at the US Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) There I established a program to listen to the concerns of the many postdoctoral fellows at NCTR.

At the start of my career, my PhD advisor strongly encouraged me to join professional societies, especially those in my areas of interest, which were toxicology and cell culture. I became active in SOT by starting at the bottom and volunteering for work that was not glamorous: I helped with the scientific presentations at the Annual Meeting by operating the carousels that held the 2x2 slides for speaker presentations, and I picked up invited speakers at the airport and took them to their hotels. As I gained more experience, I volunteered for SOT Committees. I was eventually recognized for my scientific excellence and commitment to the Society and was elected to SOT Council.

Following this experience, I thought I was a viable candidate for SOT President. Feeling well-qualified, I wrote a letter to the Chair of the Nominating Committee asking about a nomination to run for President. The following year I was placed on the ballot and then elected by my peers as the first Mexican-American President in the Society’s 40-year history, serving as President for the 2000–2001 term. I encourage everyone in the Society to pursue leadership opportunities, keep our minds open, and recognize the leadership skills of our peers.

While young people in America still face and ask questions about discrimination, toxicology is a discipline that offers many opportunities for students interested in the biomedical sciences, the environment, the government, industry, and academia. All it takes is hard work, persistence, determination, and a little help from your family and friends. While I experienced discrimination along the way, I also had help from many people during my journey.

I believe that we need to encourage students of diversity to consider careers in toxicology and biomedical research. Throughout my career I received grants from the government and the pharmaceutical industry to encourage underrepresented students to consider the field of toxicology as a potential career. My wife and I established the Daniel and Patricia Acosta Diversity Student Fund at SOT to assist students who want to become toxicologists. Some of my proudest moments are to see and listen to the many young students who have been helped in a very small way by the diversity fund.

Throughout my career, I never doubted my abilities and never thought that I was inferior to other scientists or academicians. I am proud to help SOT ensure that the next generation of toxicologists gain the confidence and skills to pursue their passions.