Coming Full Circle with Undergraduate Outreach - A Toxicologist’s Story

By William Beierschmitt posted 13 days ago

Bill, Dean McCauslin, and Tim

I arrived at Mount St. Mary’s College (now Mount St. Mary’s University) in fall 1976 to sign up for freshman classes. The small, private liberal arts school in rural northern Maryland offered the perfect environment for me to grow and learn, for I realized even at age 18 that I would need to work hard and apply myself to make it through to the end, something I admittedly gave little thought to while attending high school. It surprised me that my dad insisted on coming with me since as a young adult I was eager and ready to make my own decisions, including my plan to enroll as a business major (didn’t everyone?). Yet, I struggled at that age with being intrinsically shy by nature, a bit awkward, and still very unsure of myself (something those who know me now might find amusing), so I welcomed his company. Dad stood next to me in line while I waited to sign up for classes, which I did find a little embarrassing, looking nervous as it got closer to being my turn. I finally asked him what was wrong, and he shocked me by saying that he had no idea why I was signing up for business classes given that I had always been interested in science (note to self: reason now apparent why he came). Always one who supported independent thought in his four sons as we got older, I decided to press him on this uncharacteristic “intrusion” into my plans, especially since I was getting closer to the head of the line. As we went back and forth, I finally stated (thinking it would end the discussion) that while I did like science, as a first-year student I would have to take biology, chemistry, and (gulp) calculus—all at the same time (you’re kidding me, right?). Dad obviously had a better grasp of the immediate situation than I did, simply saying, “You can do it, and this is the place where you can make it happen.” Speechless and with literally only one person in front of me waiting to sign up for business classes, I stepped out of line and walked over to a different table where no one was waiting at the time to enroll as a science major. My journey as a scientist was about to begin. What compelled me to follow my dad’s advice at that moment I will never fully understand, but as I look back, I continue to realize that sometimes the most significant moments in one’s life often pass by without us realizing that they have occurred.

I thrived and grew in so many ways at Mount St. Mary’s, all while establishing a comprehensive and solid foundation in science—I even got through calculus. Yet, as I was completing my junior year, I was still unsure of how I would apply all that I had learned, where was I going, and what would be next. Two events were about to occur that profoundly affected the direction that I would take. First, over the summer the faculty arranged for me to do an internship in the laboratory of Dr. Hal Neufeld, an infectious disease researcher working at nearby Fort Detrick. I learned a lot from him and spending time in his laboratory where he was performing research to combat disease piqued my interest. Then, the first semester of my senior year, Dr. Vic Morgenroth of the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA), who was a graduate of Mount St. Mary’s, drove up to the campus from Washington, DC, a couple of evenings a week to teach a night course in toxicology. I took his course, and Dr. Morgenroth’s effort to “give back” by teaching this class lit a fire in me that still burns today. I had found my calling and knew what I wanted to do.

Bill Presenting

I went on to attend graduate school at the University of Maryland, studying in the laboratory of Dr. Myron Weiner, an exceptional advisor who patiently mentored me to bring out and develop my skills as a scientist. Next, the stars aligned for me, and I somehow landed a postdoctoral position in the laboratory of Dr. Steven Cohen with the University of Connecticut Toxicology Program. Dr. Cohen immersed me in his world of cutting-edge science and trained me to work and function as an independent scientific researcher. Collectively, all this training led me to an exciting and fulfilling career in the pharmaceutical industry at Pfizer, where I worked on the development of several drugs until my retirement in 2018 (I currently consult part-time).

I will always hold the names of Drs. Hal Neufeld, Myron Weiner, and Steven Cohen in the highest regard, for they taught, shaped, and forged me as a scientist. I carried everything they collectively taught me throughout my entire career, and all that I have accomplished during my 30-plus years as a toxicologist would not have been possible without their mentorship. But looking back, I have aways realized and appreciated that my earliest roots as a scientist began to sprout as an undergraduate at Mount St. Mary’s, cultivated by individuals like Drs. Bill Meredith, John Dropp, Pete Gauthier, and James Thomas. In addition, I will always be in debt to Dr. Morgenroth, the alumnus who felt compelled to come back to campus and introduced me and other students to the fascinating world of toxicology.

Much has changed at Mount St. Mary’s since I graduated in 1980, but a lot remains the same. It is now a university but still maintains its small college feel. There are currently about 2,000 undergraduate students, with an average student-to-faculty ratio of 14 to 1. The average class size is 18 students. The university’s School of Natural Science and Mathematics (SNSM) offers a wide range of undergraduate majors and minors and has an exceptional faculty committed to teaching the next generation of scientists and conducting and publishing novel scientific research in several disciplines. In recent years, there has been a dramatic expansion of the educational capabilities in the sciences at Mount St. Mary’s. While less than 10% of the students majored in science during my time there, Dean Christine McCauslin told me that approximately 40% of the incoming first-year class enrolled in STEM-related fields as a major while 30% of the recent graduating class completed degrees associated with the SNSM. Of particular interest is the school’s Summer Research Internship Awards program, where students develop a proposal (mentored by the faculty) to conduct a scientific research project with the understanding that if funded by the SNSM the results will be presented on campus at the annual Scholarship, Performance, Art, Research, and Creativity (SPARC) Festival and/or at external scientific meetings as appropriate. Thus, the hallways of the science building are adorned with various scientific research poster presentations authored by students and the faculty that mentored them.

Tim Presenting

Reflecting on so many fortuitous events in my professional life, I have always realized that I wanted to give back to Mount St. Mary’s, the place where it all started. As such, I have been a member of the external Board of Advisors to the SNSM for several years, providing assistance and suggestions to help where I can based on my life and work experiences. In this capacity, given that toxicology is seldom a scientific discipline found in most undergraduate institutions, I approached Dean McCauslin and Dr. Betty Eidemiller (SOT Education Director) about my interest in conducting some sort of outreach to the SNSM on toxicology as a potential career choice. Dr. Eidemiller introduced me to the activities of the SOT Faculty United for Toxicology Undergraduate Recruitment and Education (FUTURE) Committee, and the Committee approved my application for a ToxScholar presentation at the SNSM. After receiving materials and advice from Dr. Eidemiller on a path forward, the plan was put in place for me to present on campus on Wednesday, October 19, with the enthusiastic support of Dean McCauslin. To help me present I reached out to a colleague, Dr. Tim McMahon, another toxicologist, SOT member, and a graduate of Mount St. Mary’s who is currently employed at the US Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC.

The agenda developed by Dr. McCauslin and the faculty was comprehensive and interactive. Both Tim and I were given time (about 20 minutes) to speak to students attending a general chemistry (first-year students taught by Dr. Sarah Krueger) and anatomy and physiology (sophomores and juniors taught by Dr. Kari Taylor-Burt) class about what toxicology is, how one becomes a toxicologist, and the diverse types of work that we do. In both instances, we ended with a question-and-answer session, and we were excited to see how engaged and interested the students were, receiving some particularly good queries from them! We then met with Dr. Garth Patterson, the Department of Science Chair and an Associate Professor of Chemistry, for about an hour. During this discussion, Dr. Patterson indicated that a current search to fill an open faculty position included finding someone who would be able to teach an Introduction to Toxicology course that he and the department thought would be of benefit to the SNSM and the students. The time given to us to interact with some of the faculty and students during the early afternoon portion of our visit was very productive and enjoyable!

Bill and Tim Meet Two Students

The afternoon ended with our three presentations (total time one hour): Toxicology as a Career Choice (Beierschmitt), Toxicological Risk Assessment of Impurities in Pharmaceutical Products (Beierschmitt), and Regulatory Toxicology and the Science behind Pesticide Registration (McMahon). The first brief presentation was a general overview of what toxicology is, what types of work we do, where we are employed, and how one becomes a toxicologist; the SOT-developed slide set available on its website was extremely helpful in developing this talk! Then, Tim and I discussed certain aspects of our jobs as toxicologists in pharmaceutical development and regulatory toxicology, respectively. The main purpose was to communicate to the students that while we are both trained toxicologists, there are many specialty areas that exist within our field, but in the end, we share the same goal of helping to make the world a safer place. The presentations took place in the main auditorium of the science building, with about 35 students in attendance and several faculty including Dean McCauslin, Dr. Patterson, Dr. Krueger, Dr. Taylor-Burt, and Dr. Kraig Sheetz, Executive Vice President of Mount St. Mary’s and Professor of Physics). The presentations also were broadcast and made available to students and staff via Zoom. What struck me when I began the first talk was that I was presenting in the same room as Dr. Morgenroth when he came to Mount St. Mary’s to talk with us about toxicology all those years ago, only I was the one standing at the front of the class now. In terms of undergraduate outreach as it relates to toxicology, I had come full circle.

Both Tim and I were pleased with how the presentations went, and the engaging question-and-answer session that followed. We received positive feedback from faculty and students concerning our presentations and the overall visit. I do feel that we met our objective of introducing toxicology as a potential career path to the students and based on some interactions that both Tim and I had during our visit feel that we sparked some genuine interest in many of the students that attended the event.

It is truly outstanding that SOT had the foresight to develop the many programs and opportunities that are available to undergraduates to foster interest in toxicology, and I would encourage any student to visit the SOT website to learn more about them. I am grateful to the FUTURE Committee for sponsoring our visit, and to Dr. McCauslin and the faculty at the SNSM for working with me and Tim to make this all happen. And to the students who now sit where I once did, I hope we helped to show you that toxicology is an exciting and rewarding career choice to consider, and if we achieved that objective, then our visit was truly worthwhile!

Note: The next application deadline is January 15 for ToxScholar Outreach Grants to conduct toxicology and career presentations for undergraduate audiences in academic institutions.