Inspiring the Next Generation of Toxicologists


By Teresa Leavens posted 02-16-2017 15:08


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Remember the spark that ignited your interest to pursue toxicology as a career? Many of us can recall the specific influence—whether it be a teacher, colleague, educational exposure, or work experience—that piqued our interest and passion to pursue our current career. This year marks the 11th anniversary of an SOT program designed to create those sparks for toxicology.

McGee photo2 edit for web.pngIn January 2006, SOT Member Nancy I. Kerkvliet, DPhil, Oregon State University, and her then-graduate student Castle Funatake visited Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, for the first SOT Domestic ToxScholar event. The ToxScholar Program was the brain child of then-SOT Education Committee Chair Lawrence R. Curtis, PhD, Oregon State University, who worked with the Education Committee to fund the program and arrange this first visit. At Whitman, Dr. Kerkvliet and Whitman alumna Funatake conducted a seminar about toxicology and had a small interactive meeting with a handful of students. Through this visit, the students interacting had the unique opportunity to learn about the relationship between a graduate student and advisor, which is more peer-like than the one undergraduate students have with their current professors and advisors. This first ToxScholar visit led to one of many lessons learned throughout that tenure of the program: Smaller, informal meetings can turn out to be fruitful and engaging, as the students feel more comfortable asking research and career-related questions. 

There have been several lessons learned from the early years of the program that have guided the planning and success of future visits. Securing attendance of undergraduate students was often listed as a challenge in the initial visits since undergraduates have multiple demands on their time. Attending a seminar session entitled “Graduate Toxicology Program” is not likely to entice many students to voluntarily attend, SOT member Kelly A. Hogan, PhD, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, notes. She had six students attend her seminar at San Diego State University in April 2007. Since then, ToxScholars have found that the seminars with the highest number of participants are those for which the undergraduates have already committed their time, such as a course lecture or required seminar series. 

Curran Quote.pngSOT member Christine P. Curran, PhD, Northern Kentucky University (NKU), has found that some of the most notable ToxScholar interactions at her school occurred over meals. In 2016, following a successful 2013 ToxScholar visit by SOT member Pamela J. Lein, PhD, University of California, Davis, for luncheon and dinner events, Dr. Curran invited SOT member Elaine M. Faustman, PhD, Institute for Risk Analysis & Risk Communication, who was serving as the keynote speaker for an SOT Ohio Valley Regional Chapter Meeting, to extend her trip to meet with students at NKU.

“The ToxScholar funds allowed us to extend her visit and meet with many undergraduates here at NKU who might not have considered toxicology careers until hearing about her experiences. The lunch conversation took on the tone of a lab meeting—sharing ideas about methods and data—which is extremely beneficial,” remembers Dr. Curran. “Too often, undergraduates are overly concerned about coursework and exams. They need to see and hear what scientific research entails. So, the investment by SOT pays off, even for students who don’t choose toxicology careers. They get a much deeper understanding of the value and impact of toxicology research.”

One of the students who had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Faustman was Breann Colter, a senior at NKU working on PCB neurotoxicology research with Dr. Curran. “I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the opportunity to go to meetings and mingle with real scientists!” Colter conveyed to Dr. Curran after the ToxScholar visit. “It’s easy to get lost in the details and talking with people about your poster [at meetings] can really get you back to the ‘big picture.’ The [ToxScholar] lunch with an expert is really great, too! It’s invaluable to be able to get tips and advice from professionals in the field, whether it’s academia or industry. I feel more prepared for life after graduation than I thought possible and am really looking forward to being able to advise undergraduates when I’m the expert!”

Students LeMoyne Owens edit for web.pngSince 2006, the Education Committee and the Committee for Diversity Initiatives (CDI) have funded more than 115 Domestic ToxScholar Outreach Grants to support member visits to colleges and universities to introduce toxicology as a discipline and to disseminate information on careers in toxicology. The funding from the CDI targets institutes that predominately serve those underrepresented in the sciences, while the Education Committee typically focuses on undergraduate schools where students might not otherwise learn about toxicology. 

One such institution is Washington College, a small liberal arts school in Maryland that teaches only undergraduates and does not have a formal toxicology program. Funded with a ToxScholar grant, SOT member Mindy F. Reynolds, PhD, invited SOT member Aaron Barchowsky, PhD, University of Pittsburgh, to visit Washington College in 2009 and 2016. The visits from Dr. Barchowsky and the classes by Dr. Reynolds have significantly increased the awareness of toxicology at Washington College, and since 2009, four students have gone onto toxicology graduate programs. In addition, several students from Washington College have presented their work at the SOT Annual Meeting. At the 2016 meeting, there were nine Washington College alumni in attendance—all working in various toxicologically-related fields. 

“From my perspective, the ToxScholar program is a great way to stretch our budgets to bring in highly respected toxicologists for seminars and conferences,” says Dr. Curran.

“ToxScholar grants allow me to bring in scientists from sectors that students are likely unfamiliar with,” adds Melinda J. Pomeroy-Black, PhD, LaGrange College. “The students are, of course, aware of academia, but they are not as educated about careers in government and industry. The ToxScholar I routinely bring to campus [SOT member Marquea D. King, PhD, US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA)] works in the field of risk assessment, of which I know only the basics. She provides insight about the application of risk assessment to products the students routinely encounter. This helps make the topic of risk assessment more relevant to them, and therefore, they are more engaged.”

Bull Quote.png“Last year, I was just starting to get involved in biochemistry and toxicology research. Dr. Timme-Laragy opened my eyes to the diversity and impact of toxicology studies,” recalls Tasha Bull, a student of SOT member Joshua P. Gray, PhD, US Coast Guard Academy, who arranged a ToxScholar visit from SOT Member Alicia R. Timme-Laragy, PhD, University of Massachusetts. “As a marine environmental science major, I also enjoyed hearing how fish could be used to further our understanding of our own development.”

In another recent ToxScholar Grant visit, last fall, Dr. King and I traveled to the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County—in part because of its proximity to the upcoming 2017 and 2019 SOT Annual Meetings and the opportunity to invite undergraduates to attend the meetings. Meyerhoff is one of the leading programs in the nation for recruiting and mentoring students underrepresented in the STEM disciplines towards a PhD (Maton et al. 2013). This initial ToxScholar visit resulted in an agreement between SOT and the Meyerhoff Program to have annual visits at the institution to engage with the students and discuss undergraduate and graduate opportunities in toxicology. Meyerhoff faculty intend to organize a group of students to attend the 2017 SOT Annual Meeting. These kinds of ongoing relationships are increasingly important for attracting a diverse and talented group of individuals to toxicology, and SOT Regional Chapters assist in continuing contact with hosts at the visited institutions. As noted in ToxScholar Grant Report by SOT Past President 2015–2016 and ToxScholar participant Peter Goering, PhD, DABT, ATS, US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA), “The SOT ToxScholar Program plays a role in building for the future of toxicology, and SOT members should be encouraged to participate.”

The application deadlines for ToxScholar grants are May 1 and October 9 each year, although applications may be accepted at other times if funds remain. More information on Domestic ToxScholar Grants and the sister International ToxScholar Outreach Grants Programs is available on the SOT website.