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An Early Career Toxicologist’s Reflection on a Decade of Service

By Lauren Walker posted 20 days ago

  
This essay is part of a series designed to celebrate SOT member diversity and showcase the diverse pathways and experiences of its members.
 
Throughout my childhood, my parents advocated the importance of both education and serving my community. In actions and words, they encouraged me to share my time and knowledge through community service projects and peer tutoring. While I wasn’t sure what specific career or field I wanted to pursue as a student, these early experiences led me to seek opportunities where I could share my skills. By sophomore year, I excitedly realized that I wanted to pursue a career that would give me the opportunity to expand my knowledge, mentor others, and proactively engage with my community.
 
During my PhD dissertation, I assessed the genomic and proteomic mechanisms responsible for developmental skeletal defects following maternal tobacco use. I used a variety of in vitro rodent and human stem cell and in vivo rodent models to interrogate these mechanisms and pathologies. I secured an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship that supported the majority of my dissertation research and published three manuscripts demonstrating my original research efforts.
 
Early in my graduate career, I was moved by a fellow student’s confession that he felt like a “research imposter” because he didn’t look like the stereotypical image of a scientist. His candor made an impression on me as I—despite being a member of multiple historically excluded groups—never questioned my right to be in academia. I later realized the subtle power of representation and support when it later occurred to me that my mother is an engineer. Over the last 10 years, I’ve dedicated myself to active mentorship and leadership service to strengthen the trainee pipeline and support the creation of professional development content that addresses unique challenges of historically excluded groups.
 
Beginning in graduate school, I have served in seven SOT leadership positions, personally mentored seven undergraduate students, and served twice as a peer mentor for the SOT Undergraduate Diversity Program. Outside of SOT, I currently serve as the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Vice President–Elect of the Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) Committee. In these roles, I developed professional development training materials for undergraduate and graduate students, served as a panelist on a student fellowship grant writing workshop, compiled virtual trainee resource materials in response to campus shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prepared a session on effective stakeholder engagement for the 2022 SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo, and actively recruited early career researchers from multiple historically excluded groups to serve on FASEB DEAI subcommittees.
 
My PhD training solidified my passion for applied toxicology and inspired me to pursue a deeper understanding of developmental toxicology as a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. As the exchange point between mother and conceptus, the placenta is susceptible to damage following maternal exposure to environmental chemicals that induce tissue toxicity. Thus, prenatal exposure to potential toxicants can disrupt the placental barrier and ultimately pose harm to the developing conceptus. Specifically, my research focused on studying how environmental chemical exposure alters placental macrophage phenotype and ability to mount an antimicrobial response. Placental macrophages are fetal-derived cells that play key roles in placental morphogenesis, homeostasis, and infection response.
 
As communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental toxicant exposures, I intended for my research to also bring light to previously unexplored potential causes of developmental and reproductive health disparities. I leveraged this work to engage with the next generation of potential toxicologists as a program instructor for the Rutgers Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). I oversaw a diverse team of fellows and specifically mentored two of the students on placenta RNA-Seq and proteomics projects that were both presented in posters at recent SOT Annual Meetings.
 
During my time at Rutgers, I was fortunate enough to take courses in risk assessment and product safety, where I finally realized how to combine my passions for toxicology, service, and science communication. Fortuitously, a product safety toxicologist position opened at Colgate-Palmolive just as my postdoctoral training was ending. I jumped at the chance to apply and was thrilled to receive the offer for a role that I had worked so long to reach.
 
“If we do not engage, we cannot make change,” has been my personal mantra for the last decade. As a member of my respective communities—both public and professional—I feel duty-bound to help bridge gaps and address present challenges facing historically excluded communities and successful retention of promising future researchers. From spending months troubleshooting a series of failed experiments or learning how to work effectively in team settings on various professional service committees, my PhD and postdoctoral training obliged me to finetune my critical thinking, communication, and teamwork skills. Each of these experiences have made me a more emotionally intelligent coworker, stronger scientist, and impassioned volunteer. Over the course of my extended career, I plan to continue developing my skillsets in my day-to-day and professional service roles to bring forth inclusive solutions and more voices to the conversation.


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Comments

19 days ago

I love this story of reflection and forward thinking.  I relate very much to it as a woman scientist of color -- and I 1000000% agree that engaging with the public is needed to make positive change.  Well said, Lauren.  In solidarity and partnership -- keep up the good work!

19 days ago

Thank you for sharing your journey, Lauren. SOT needs more members like you who engage with colleagues, trainees and the larger community and who are eager to share their skills and increase the visibility of toxicology. You are one of our rising stars!