HOSA-Future Health Professionals is a global, student-led organization focused on promoting career opportunities in the health industry. The North Carolina chapter held a conference in Greensboro that was attended by about 2,000 high school students interested in exploring careers in medicine and biomedical science. I was invited to present a talk on “TOXICOLOGY—A Career in Biomedical Science.” The invitation arose from the collaboration SOT has with the North Carolina Association of Biomedical Research (NCABR).
As I was unfamiliar with the HOSA conference, I decided to go early. I arrived at the convention center in Greensboro a couple of hours before my presentation. At the conference, high school students chose to attend many concurrent sessions on a wide range of topics. At several tables in the common areas, representatives from colleges, nongovernmental organizations, and companies provided information to the student attendees. Well-Dressed students in the hallways spoke to bare walls, practicing their presentations. Some of the meeting rooms hosted formal presentations by invited speakers, whereas others had roundtable discussions. I decided to attend a presentation in the hour before mine where a couple dozen high school students listened intently to a professor from a North Carolina college talk about the drug development process.
My presentation took place in a larger room that seated over 100. As I was loading my PowerPoint presentation, students filtered in. I expected plenty of empty seats in the large room, but by starting time, not only were all seats filled, many students stood against the back wall. I was shocked at the interest in toxicology!
I had divided my presentation into three sections: first, a few slides on toxicology as a biomedical science, what sorts of poisonings occur, what training is needed, in what types of activities toxicologists are engaged and in what employment sectors, how I became interested in the discipline, and how well I liked my career as a toxicologist.
The second section focused on some fundamental toxicology principles—one slide on how chemicals get into and are handled by the body (i.e., ADME) and a slide making the point that chemicals are everywhere (e.g., a list of 60 names of chemicals found in a baked potato)—followed by a demonstration of dose-response. For the demonstration, I chose a volunteer from the audience and placed a large container of candies before her.
- “On a scale from 0 (just fine) to 10 (horrible), how would you feel if you ate one candy?” I asked.
- “Really great!” was her response—score of 0.
- “What about two candies, both in one sitting?” … Then, in succession, 4? 6? 8? 10? 15? 25? 30? 50? 100?
As the candy dose grew, the misery score increased; the result was tracked in Excel in real time as a dose-response curve. I then asked the audience, “What do you notice about this plot?” Many of the high school students raised their hands: “The more candies, the worse you feel!” Correct! What else? “Below a certain number, there is no effect.” Correct! This was the lead-in for a discussion about “the dose makes the poison” and about the importance of thresholds. What followed was a few slides showing how dose-response curves are used in gaining evidence for cause-and-effect, in choosing the best drug candidate, and in how to inform oneself about whether to be concerned about exposure to a chemical.
I encouraged the students to ask questions along the way, and, to my delight, many did:
- “How did you find out about toxicology?”
- “How did you become interested in it?”
- “What’s your favorite toxic chemical?”
There were so many questions that I didn’t get to my third section, which amounted to a few parting thoughts (e.g., in choosing a career, find where your interests and abilities intersect; learn to communicate; use criticism to improve yourself; put yourself out there and assume that you’ll continue to grow).
I exceeded my allotted time. As I thanked the students for their attendance and attention, some began to filter to the front. Soon, I was surrounded by more than a dozen, some with more questions, some just wanting to say “thanks,” and one wanting to show me a drawing that she had made of me on her cell phone during the session.
This marked one of the few times that I had interacted with a group of high school students about toxicology. That these students were so bright, so engaged, and so inquisitive was uplifting and made the experience a joy. I learned that this cohort of high schoolers was eager to learn about toxicology—the principles and how they apply to themselves, as well as careers. I learned that I prepared too much material for the time allotted for a group with so many questions. These students impressed me as highly receptive, responsive, and reachable. As a society of toxicologists, we should connect with high school students through HOSA and other organizations, not only to recruit the next generation into the discipline but also to help young people develop a rational basis for understanding when, and when not, to be concerned about their exposure to chemicals. HOSA has many conferences throughout the year across the US that may be of interest to those looking to connect with future health professionals.