Reflections on the 2021 Virtual Undergraduate Diversity Program and CDI-Hosted Undergraduate Events

By Frederic Moulin posted 05-06-2021 13:51


This blog was authored by Frederic Moulin, DVM, PhD (outgoing CDI Chair); Kymberly Gowdy, PhD (incoming CDI Chair); and Karilyn Sant, PhD (2021–2022 CDI leadership).

Although the 2021 SOT Annual Meeting was not held in person, the Committee on Diversity Initiatives (CDI) hosted most of the typical on-site Undergraduate Diversity Program (UDP) and CDI undergraduate events in a virtual setting from March 13 to March 27, 2021. The UDP is part of the overall undergraduate program, which featured virtual sessions on March 14 and March 20, including:

  • “What Is Toxicology and Why Should I Care: Live Introduction to Toxicology Presentation and Q&A”
  • “Ins and Outs of Graduate School in Toxicology: Insights into Admissions, Training, and Finding Success”
  • “Case Study for Undergraduate Students: Metal Levels in Whales from the Gulf of Maine: A One Environmental Health Approach”

Additionally, CDI developed activities for the UDP, including a program opening and closing, happy hours, mentoring groups, and other activities only available to the UDP awardees.

CDI-Hosted Events for Undergraduate Students

The Virtual Undergraduate Diversity Program

During the first event, “What Is Toxicology and Why Should I Care: Live Introduction to Toxicology Presentation and Q&A,” Dr. Marquea King (USDA, Beltsville, MD) gave a very engaging and energetic presentation introducing the many facets of toxicology, its history, and its impact on society. This was followed by a live Q&A session. I moderated the event, with the assistance of 2021 Co-Chair Kymberly Gowdy, PhD, and incoming CDI Co-Chair Kari Sant, PhD, MPH. All the undergraduate student participants appeared very interested and engaged with the speaker. This event was limited to the UDP awardees and undergraduate students registered, recording 60 attendees, comprising the 23 UDP awardees and 37 undergraduate students and others.

The second virtual event, “Ins and Outs of Graduate School in Toxicology: Insights into Admissions, Training, and Finding Success,” allowed recipients of the Undergraduate Diversity Program Student Award to meet virtually with 18 graduate school advisors and current graduate students during breakout sessions. Each discussion group was moderated by a PhD student or postdoctoral fellow in toxicology and a professor of toxicology. During the event, the 29 student attendees learned tips for successfully applying to graduate school and asked questions about the student experience and how to succeed in graduate school. This session was open to all registered undergraduate students, including UDP awardees.

The third event, “Case Study for Undergraduate Students: Metal Levels in Whales from the Gulf of Maine: A One Environmental Health Approach,” was led by Mindy F. Reynolds, PhD (Washington College, Chesterton, MD), and John P. Wise Sr., PhD, (University of Louisville, Louisville, KY). During this event, Dr. Wise prepared a special introduction to environmental and ecotoxicology in which he presented his research techniques and how sampling of whales is conducted; the presentation included impressive images and videos of the process. Later, Dr. Reynolds led case study exercises and separated the students into nine small groups to interpret and analyze real research data. The presentation was impressive for its scientific content and for the quality of the delivery in such an engaging format. In addition to the presenters, the audience included 18 student recipients of the Undergraduate Diversity Program Student Award and around 10 undergraduate students (in addition to all host and peer volunteer mentors and CDI volunteers), for a total of 28 undergraduate student attendees.

All these events were endorsed by the Faculty United for Toxicology Undergraduate Recruitment and Education (FUTURE) Committee. FUTURE also hosted virtual undergraduate events during the meeting, such as “Toxicology Career Roundtables” and “Undergraduate Networking with Graduate Students,” which were held on March 24 and March 25, respectively.

Another undergraduate activity hosted by CDI and endorsed by FUTURE was the “Time with Academic Program Directors: Graduate School Virtual Career Fair,” in which program directors and representatives from 34 graduate programs in toxicology participated, meeting virtually with the students and discussing the merits of their graduate program, application requirements, and more. The roster of participating programs and their information is accessible to all undergraduates who visit the SOT Annual Meeting website.

2021 Undergraduate Diversity Program Events

In addition to the undergraduate events hosted by CDI, the Undergraduate Diversity Program (UDP) awardees were assigned into mentoring groups in which the UDP host and peer mentors interacted with the awardees of their group before and during the Annual Meeting as part of the UDP award benefits. Host and peer mentors engaged and connected with their assigned UDP student awardees virtually and assisted them with understanding the program content, reviewed Annual Meeting Poster Sessions, provided them with mentorship, and established meaningful relationships and interactions to keep students engaged with the program and connected with SOT opportunities and resources. The host and peer mentors will continue to keep in contact with students in their mentor group throughout those students’ undergraduate studies and be a resource to them as they consider career paths and advanced degrees. This mentoring aspect is one of the most important and most valuable components of our program.

Alexandra E. Svetlik

Besides our mentoring program, we welcomed our student awardees to the program and to the SOT Annual Meeting at our Virtual UDP Opening Event. During the event, not only were CDI members, mentors, and students able to engage and connect with each other, but also, CDI organized “Toxicology Background” and “Tox Scavenger Hunt” competitions in which two students won and received SOT swag as a prize. Additionally, Ms. Alexandra E. Svetlik (King University, Bristol, TN) was recognized by CDI for her achievement in receiving the 2021 Perry J. Gehring Diversity Student Travel Award, selected by CDI. A 2020 UDP participant and undergraduate student, her abstract is titled “Investigation of the Protective Effects of Nicotine in Pesticide-Induced Neurodegeneration in the Model Organism C. elegans.” The Perry J. Gehring Diversity Student Travel Award recognizes a graduate or undergraduate student who participated in the UDP, is from an ethnic group underrepresented in toxicology (for example, African American, Hispanic, Native American, or Pacific Islander), and is presenting an abstract during the SOT Annual Meeting.

Within the two weeks of the UDP, CDI also coordinated two UDP CDI Happy Hours in which the CDI members and awardees connected, asked questions about the Annual Meeting and UDP, and played fun games such as Pop Culture-Toxicology Trivia and Laboratory Pictionary.

At the UDP Closing Event, Kenneth Ramos, MD, PhD, ATS (Texas A&M University, Houston, TX), SOT Past President and past Chair of the Education Subcommittee for Minority Initiatives, gave a very engaging and inspirational career development presentation titled “To Know the Road Ahead, Ask Those Who Traveled Before You: A Modified Chinese Proverb Mixed with LINEs.” This presentation generated a lot of engagement and questions from the students on career paths in toxicology, advice on graduate school, and more. At the end of the presentation and dynamic Q&A, we congratulated all students for attending the program events, for their achievements, and for receiving the Undergraduate Diversity Program Student Award. UDP certificates of completion and letters of participation were awarded to students who completed the program requirements, including attendance at required events. This event was open for UDP awardees, host and peer mentors, and CDI members.

CDI and the students are very fortunate to have leading toxicologists take time to virtually share their knowledge and professional development experiences. The UDP recruits mentors and graduate student or postdoctoral near-peer mentors to formulate mentoring groups so that UDP students have the opportunity to form solid relationships with toxicologists. These mentoring activities start in February before the Annual Meeting but continue throughout the year. This year, our outstanding host mentor list included: Robert Casillas, Tirupapuliyur Damodaran, Jamie DeWitt, James Luyendyk, Craig Marcus, Shaun McCullough, Jennifer Rayner, Meghan Rebuli, and Vicente Santa Cruz. Our outstanding peer mentor list included: Clayton Allex-Buckner, Olushola Awoyemi, Krisa Camargo, Courtney McClure, Lauren Walker, and Mia Williams Burnett.

The Virtual Undergraduate Diversity Program

CDI is immensely thankful to the FUTURE Committee, all the program host and peer mentors, all the volunteers, the speakers, the program representatives, the donors and supporters, CDI members, and everyone who made this virtual program possible. All these individuals and groups graciously gave their time, effort, and contributions to the 2021 virtual undergraduate events hosted by CDI and the UDP; without their strong support, the goal of increased diversity in toxicology would not be possible. While CDI delivered the content of the 2021 program virtually because of the ongoing pandemic and the SOT 60th Annual Meeting being virtual, the Committee plans to use the lessons from this experience to incorporate virtual activities as part of the mission and activities of CDI. The ability to erase distances and bring us all together from the comfort of our homes is certainly worth the trouble of learning new tools.

The 2021 Virtual Undergraduate Diversity Program was remarkably well attended, lively, engaging, and fun for all the participants. Many of this year’s participants have shared that this program was a wonderful and affirming experience and opportunity, as well as how valuable the experience will be as they plan career paths and consider pursuing advanced degrees. CDI is delighted and excited with the outcome of all events, especially with the level of involvement and engagement from the UDP mentors, volunteers, awardees, and undergraduate students who participated. As we look forward to a (hopefully) in-person 2022 meeting in San Diego, we hope that the greater SOT community will continue to endorse the UDP, as volunteers and in their active support for past and future UDP students.