Participation in the 2001 Undergraduate Diversity Program and Follow-Up Mentoring Led Me into a Lifelong Career in Toxicology

By Jennifer Rayner posted 02-14-2019 13:38


Communique 2019 Issue 1 Masthead

How do you share a moment in time that so profoundly changed your life? As an undergraduate student at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina, I had done my due diligence and presented my research at a few conferences. However, what I experienced during the opening session of the Undergraduate Diversity Program (UDP) at the SOT Annual Meeting in 2001 truly set my career trajectory. This year, the UDP is celebrating its 30th anniversary of championing the development of diverse undergraduates in toxicology.

Jennifer Rayner during the 2004 Annual Meeting and ToxExpoNearly 20 years ago, this program was life changing for me. Right from the start, during the “Introduction to Toxicology” session, I was captivated. The term toxicology was initially unfamiliar, but the more I listened, the more it resonated with me. The scientific presentations were great, and time spent with academic advisors and people from industry was awesome.

Attending this focused event with other undergraduates, graduate students, and scientists in a small group setting was so different from my past conference experiences, where the balance was tipped toward very large groups, with very few meaningful person-to-person interactions. To have the individual time with people who cared about my future plans and who poured new ideas into me was exciting. That is what has catalyzed my involvement in the UDP—people pouring into me, which has inspired and motivated me to pour into others. It is what sparked the fire.

Everyone involved with the program was so friendly, open, and helpful. Mentors from other tables walked around the room and struck up conversations with the attendees as they did so, ensuring we were able to “pick the brains” of as many experts as we could. I could tell they were serious when they asked me to contact them after the meeting. Indeed, the contacts I made during the UDP catalyzed many new opportunities and forged lasting relationships that have influenced my career. For example, before these interactions with host mentors, I had no idea what a contract research organization was, and opportunities in industry were entirely foreign to me. The bond I developed with my host mentors led to mentoring, internships, and later, interviews!

At the conclusion of the UDP, I remember walking back to the hotel with my advisor, unable to stop talking about the program. Indeed, the UDP led to lasting friendships and professional networking with my fellow undergraduate students, peer mentors, and host mentors, all of whom played a role in guiding me on the path I took to become the toxicologist that I am today.     

2017 Undergraduate Education ProgramThe UDP, both the people and the program, has had a profound impact on me. I have returned to the UDP as a peer mentor and now as a host mentor so that I, too, can now make a positive impact on undergraduates who are in the same place I was nearly 20 years ago. The possibility that one of them may write an article like this 20 years from now is what drives me as a mentor. I know that I’m not alone in this as every year, on Saturday evening at the Annual Meeting, the Committee on Diversity Initiatives (CDI) hosts a reunion, where all of us who have been involved with the UDP get to catch up and recall the wonderful times we have had in years past and are having now. Every year, this “family” reunion gets bigger and better. 

It is hard to put into words how the CDI, UDP, and CDI Reunion have impacted both my career and me personally. How do you tell others that your CDI family is like a real family, supporting, cheering, advising, and encouraging you every step of your career? How do you explain to others why you are so passionate about opening up a whole new world for students? Such concepts are difficult to frame in text, but I encourage you to attend the CDI 30th anniversary reunion and see for yourself.

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EDITOR’S SIDEBAR: The History and Impact of the Undergraduate Diversity Program

Undergraduate Diversity Program Anniversary LogoSOT celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Undergraduate Diversity Program (UDP) this year, a program that “has changed the face of SOT,” according to SOT Past President Marion Ehrich, who was instrumental in launching and leading the program. 

The program takes place over three days at the start of the SOT Annual Meeting and involves more than 90 volunteers, including the intensive efforts of the Committee on Diversity Initiatives (CDI), dynamic presentations by speakers, relationship-building by mentors (including established toxicologists as well as trainees), insight from academic program representatives and those representing various careers, and toxicologists who lead the small student groups as they participate in other Annual Meeting activities.

The UDP began in 1989, when undergraduate students from institutions in the Atlanta, Georgia, area were invited to attend special toxicology lectures during the Annual Meeting. A similar program was held for Miami, Florida, students the next year. To help expand the initiative’s reach, program collaborator and National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientist Faye Calhoun suggested that SOT apply for funding from NIH, which was interested in fostering the development of scientists from underrepresented groups. The goal was to expand the program to include nonlocal students and faculty advisors from schools where students had little opportunity to learn about toxicology. SOT became the first professional organization to receive an NIH grant to support this kind of activity, and in 1991 undergraduates from across the country attended the SOT meeting in Dallas, Texas.

2018 Undergraduate Diversity Program participantsMany members from SOT Council, the Education Committee, and the Tox 90s Committee helped launch the UDP. In 1997, a subcommittee of the Education Committee was established to organize and oversee the program, and in 2005, this subcommittee became the CDI. Special thanks go to those who have chaired this committee (and the prior subcommittee) through the history of the program. Several SOT members who first came to the SOT meeting as undergraduates through the UDP are among the previous chairs of the CDI, including Adrian Nanez, Jennifer Rayner, and Kristini Miles. Thanks also are owed to the individuals who have served as the principal investigators for the NIH grants: Marion Ehrich, Myrtle Davis, and José Manautou.

Over the last three decades, a thousand students from more than 380 institutions have had the opportunity to learn about the science and key concepts of toxicology through the UDP. Many who have participated in the UDP have proceeded to graduate school in the biomedical sciences and into toxicology-related careers. Eye on CDI features some of their stories. This year’s Annual Meeting attendees are invited to attend the CDI Reunion at 7:30 pm on March 9 at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore to meet this year’s students and to share congratulations with others who are celebrating this life-changing SOT program.