SOT Fulbrighter Receives International ToxScholar Award to Visit Republics of Serbia and Moldova

By Blase Billack posted 09-08-2016 14:04


Note: The next application deadline for ToxScholar funding is October 9.

Introduction: I am a toxicologist and a member of the faculty of the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at St. John’s University. I joined the Society of Toxicology (SOT) in 1996 while still a doctoral candidate in the Joint Graduate Program in Toxicology at Rutgers/New Jersey Medical School (UMDNJ). As I write this blog entry, I am finishing up a sabbatical at the University of Udine, where I have been serving as a US Fulbright Scholar to Italy. I will soon return home to New York with a broad new perspective and many treasured memories. 

What is the International ToxScholar Outreach grant and what strategies were used to ensure that students would be in attendance? The International ToxScholar Outreach Grant provides travel funds for SOT members to visit institutions in developing countries with the purpose of expanding student awareness of the science of toxicology. I was funded for a proposal that involved organizing and presenting a toxicology symposium for students in the Republics of Serbia and Moldova, which, in turn, involved reaching out to host contacts in these countries. My hosts and I were ecstatic and worked together to ensure that the visits would be successful. Each host advertised the toxicology symposium by sending emails directly to their students and, as part of the award, we were able to offer free lunch to those in attendance.

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 Vesna Matovic hosted Blase Billack at the University of Belgrade

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Serbian students in the audience were from the clinical and pharmaceutical sciences.

The hosting universities/institutes: The visit to Serbia occurred on June 13, 2016, and the hosting institution was the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Pharmacy. My primary host contacts there were Prof. Dr. Vesna Matovic (Department of Toxicology Academic Danilo Soldatović, Faculty of Pharmacy, and President of the Serbian Society of Toxicology) and Prof. Dr. Zorica Vujić (Dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy). My hosts were wonderful and welcoming. I particularly benefitted from my conversations with Dr. Matovic regarding the history of toxicology in Serbia and the influence of French science on the science of toxicology in Serbia. I enjoyed learning about her mentor Danilo Soldatović, who was a corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences Medicine Department, and who bequeathed his Lavoisier Medal to her (which I was able to see and hold; how wonderful!). The traditional Serbian dinner after the symposium was simply delightful.

Dr. Matovic’s passion for toxicology is beyond borders and contagious and I hope that all of our toxicology colleagues will attend the upcoming Congress on Toxicology in Developing Countries (CTDC 10) April 18–21, 2018, which will be held in Belgrade. Please contact Dr. Matovic for more details and mark it on your calendars.    

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 Elena Jardan was the host in Moldova.

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 Students in Moldova had backgrounds in public health.

My outreach proposal also included visits to two different institutes in Chișinău, Moldova. The visit to Moldova took place from June 20–23, 2016, and involved meetings with students at the State Medical and Pharmaceutical University “N.Testemitanu” and at the National Center for Public Health. My host contacts in Moldova were Ms. Elena Jardan, Junior Researcher in Medicine, Head of the Experimental Toxicology Laboratory, and Prof. Dr. Lurie Pinzaru, General Director of the National Center of Public Health. During my visit, I also was welcomed by the Dean of the Faculty, Dr. Angela Cazacu-Stratu, and the head of the public health department. My Moldovan hosts also were gracious and enthusiastic! Elena Jardan invited me to her home where she and her husband prepared a traditional Moldovan meal that was simply amazing. She also took me on a tour around the city and arranged for me to visit a district public health office in Orhei, Moldova, about 50 km from Chișinău, where I met with student volunteers and district leaders who work on various public health problems ranging from alcoholism to smoking to STD prevention. 

During my outreach in Chișinău, I came to learn that the Republic of Moldova has activated the first laboratory in experimental/descriptive toxicology that has national accreditation and quality system ISO 17025. The laboratory has necessary capacities to conduct complex and valid research on health hazards and the impact of toxic chemicals on human health. The experimental toxicology lab is under the Chemical Safety and Toxicology Center of the National Institute of Public Health. For more information, or to discuss possible collaborations, please contact Ms. Jardan.

Details concerning the symposium: The primary purpose of the visits to Serbia and Moldova was to present a symposium in English, “Toxicology and You: Perfect Together?” The symposium featured four lectures, ranging in length from 30 minutes to 90 minutes.    

The first lecture included a historical perspective of the science of toxicology as well as a broad description of how the science has progressed to its modern point of view. The second lecture offered guidance to students as to how to take their next steps into a career in toxicology (e.g., types of jobs available to toxicologists and how to discern between entering the workforce or continuing on the path towards a Master’s or PhD degree). The third presentation was a panel discussion and co-presented with the hosts at each institute. Its purpose was to inform students about specific graduate programs and post-graduate toxicology opportunities at home and in the USA. I also described the process of applying to graduate school in the USA. Lastly, I presented a seminar about my research and hosted a Q&A session.

The students who attended the symposium:  In Serbia, the audience was comprised primarily of students of pharmacy or clinical lab sciences, who have previously had a course in toxicology in their pharmacy curriculum. There were 25 students in attendance. The students were engaged, had a solid command of the English language, and asked questions, both during the symposium and at lunch. When I asked them a question concerning whether they were optimistic about the future, most of them raised their hands. This was a positive sign. Indeed, I also asked the students in the room to write down their emails so that I could send them a link to a post-symposium survey and all of them signed the sheet. The response rate on the survey was 9 people out of 25. See Table 1 below for the results of this survey; all responses were anonymous. 

In Moldova, those attending at both sites were primarily students of public health, with only a basic background in toxicology. At the first location, there were 17 people, among them 2 faculty members. At the second location, there were 11 people present; again 2 faculty. I also sent a post-symposium survey to these individuals; however, only four people responded out of the 28 and all four of these respondents were over 26 years old (i.e., likely the people in the audience who were not students). Therefore, I am not including the Moldova survey results. 

Assessment of the symposium in Serbia: The following is a summary of respondent characteristics and the results:

78% were between the ages of 21 and 25.
89% were female.
67% described themselves as students in the Master’s program of the University.
67% replied that they spend more than 3 hr/day on the internet
89% indicated that the symposium was useful for them
100% said that SOT should continue to support these types of ToxScholar outreach visits to students in developing countries.


The responses revealed that the symposium was effective in meeting its objective of expanding student awareness of toxicology.

Concluding thoughts: The biggest issue that I observed in both Moldova and Serbia in terms of toxicology and science opportunities is that the current climate for research can be improved, particularly in regard to the funding of research in these places. I imagine that as these countries begin to align their political systems with those of the European Union, more and more opportunities will present themselves for research funding. In the meantime, I encourage all of us to explore collaborative efforts with these host institutions. I can tell you first hand that the scientists in all of these places are bright, motivated, and capable. The economic situation in Serbia and Moldova will undoubtedly continue to grow, but establishing connections now will help them to help themselves even faster. The political situations in the countries are quite complex, but science is an area that can break down barriers and toxicology should lead the way.

I am deeply appreciative to SOT, to St. John’s University, and to the US-Italy Fulbright Commission for their support of this opportunity. I also am thankful to Dr. Frank Barile, Chair of Pharmaceutical Sciences at St. John’s University, and Dr. George DeGeorge, President of the Mid-Atlantic SOT Regional Chapter (MASOT) and Chief Scientific Officer at MB Research Labs in Spinnerstown, Pennsylvania, for letters of support for my application with very short notice. For those who might be considering applying for a ToxScholar grant next year, do it. It just might change your life, and the viewpoints of those you meet. Best wishes from Udine, Italy… see everyone back stateside in Baltimore next March. Ciao!