This award, sponsored by the SOT Endowment, recognizes an SOT member who is distinguished by outstanding contributions to the teaching of undergraduate students in toxicology and toxicology-related areas and whose efforts support the Society’s strategic efforts to “build for the future of toxicology.”
Lauren M. Aleksunes, PharmD, PhD, DABT, has been awarded the 2023 SOT Undergraduate Educator Award in recognition of her teaching and mentoring of undergraduate pharmacy students and her significant contributions to the development of new curricula and instructional approaches to attract, educate, and retain students in the field.
Dr. Aleksunes received a PharmD and PhD in pharmacology and toxicology from the University of Connecticut in 2002 and 2006, respectively. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Kansas Medical Center in 2009. She joined the faculty of Rutgers Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy in 2009 and currently serves as Professor. Also, Dr. Aleksunes is concurrently the Director of the Joint Graduate Program in Toxicology at the university.
The majority of her teaching is to undergraduate students (i.e., juniors and seniors). The Rutgers PharmD program is one of the few programs in the country where most students are accepted into the school while enrolled in high school. As a member of the Pharmacology and Toxicology Department, Dr. Aleksunes teaches in several core courses, including Physiology, Pathophysiology, Pharmacology and Pharmacogenetics, and various Pharmacotherapy Modules. Her primary teaching responsibility is the Pharmacology and Pharmacogenetics course that is held in the junior year; she covers 55% of the content and particularly the toxicological perspective of topics, including dose-response, receptor signaling, regulation of pharmacokinetics/toxicokinetics, and pharmacogenetics/toxicogenetics. She also lectures in other elective courses, such as Introduction to Research and Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology.
In addition to her important contributions to classroom teaching, Dr. Aleksunes has significantly strengthened and expanded the research opportunities available to undergraduate students in the school. In 2010, she took over as Co-director of the Honors Research Program at the school, reorganizing the curriculum and professional activities of undergraduate pharmacy honors students and working with other faculty in the department to establish and promote Rutgers’s now highly successful PharmD/PhD program. Rutgers has graduated five PharmD/PhD students in the field of pharmacology and toxicology, two of whom were trained by Dr. Aleksunes.
Dr. Aleksunes also worked to expand the school’s summer undergraduate research fellowship program, which she has taken over as Director. In addition to developing a more formal didactic program for the summer students, which includes career counseling and an industrial field trip, she was key in the department’s success in obtaining three highly prestigious grants to support the program. These included grants from the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) and SOT on which she is the Principal Investigator (PI) and a third from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences on which she also serves as PI (currently in year 12 of funding).
Another notable accomplishment under Dr. Aleksunes’s leadership has been the establishment of a pipeline of undergraduate researchers who pursue graduate education in pharmacology and toxicology, particularly students from underrepresented minority backgrounds, as well as those from small colleges without significant research opportunities. To accomplish this, Dr. Aleksunes partnered with the Research Intensive Summer Experience program at Rutgers that supports national recruitment. This pipeline has benefited the Rutgers Pharmacology/Toxicology PhD and postdoctoral program with a third of its trainees from underrepresented backgrounds.
Dr. Aleksunes also has been active in teaching one-on-one in her laboratory, and she holds a reputation as an outstanding teacher and mentor. Her students have won major awards at scientific meetings hosted by SOT and ASPET, and some have received fellowship funding from the National Institutes of Health, the American Foundation of Pharmaceutical Education (AFPE), and the Pharmaceutical Research Manufacturers of America.
Further evidence of her teaching excellence can be found in her recent awards. In 2014, she was selected as a recipient of the highly prestigious Rutgers Presidential Fellowship for Teaching Excellence and in 2015 for the Mentor of the Year Award from AFPE. In 2018, she was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award from the NJ Health Foundation, and in 2020, she was named the Rutgers University Chancellor’s Educator of the Year. Recognizing her strong commitment to students, the graduating PharmD class of 2021 voted Dr. Aleksunes as the William and Helen Levine Teacher of the Year. Additionally, this year, she received the Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences Distinguished Mentor Award.