SOT ToxScholar Program: The Impact of Undergraduate Outreach


By Phillip Wages posted 06-08-2017 13:00


I have been a part of the Society of Toxicology (SOT) ToxScholar Program three times since I entered the field of toxicology. The first time was not as a speaker, but as one of the undergraduate students in the audience at Ashland University. Even though I was in the middle of obtaining my degree in toxicology, I did not know of the different and varied occupations toxicologists could pursue. Michael Madden, the SOT member who served as the ToxScholar ambassador to Ashland University, was—and still is—a Principle Investigator at the Human Studies Facility of the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). He was neither an academic professor nor an investigator at a contract research organization, but an environmental health toxicologist researching how to prevent air pollution-induced disease in humans.

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Phillip Wages presenting at Fort Lewis College

I chose to study toxicology as an undergraduate to distinguish myself in medical school applications, but Dr. Madden’s visit opened my eyes towards how a toxicologist could improve human health at a national or even global level. Needless to say, the ToxScholar Program, in part, helped me decide to become a toxicologist because I believed I could help more people through research than I could by opening my own practice.

Dr. Madden’s talk may have influenced my decision to go to graduate school, but I ultimately chose to join the Curriculum in Toxicology at the University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill and complete my graduate studies at the Human Studies Facility of the US EPA in Dr. James Samet’s laboratory. It was during my graduate studies that I participated in the ToxScholar Program again, but this time as a speaker myself. I traveled to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, to talk about the multiple career opportunities available in the field of toxicology, but also to inspire scientifically interested undergraduates to think about toxicology by discussing the new and emerging questions in the field.

The third, and hopefully not the final time I was involved with the ToxScholar Program, was again as a speaker this past spring. This time I worked closely with another SOT member and colleague from the UNC Toxicology program, Jaime Mirowsky, who had recently been hired at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) as an Assistant Professor. SUNY-ESF is and has historically been recognized as a specialized institution studying all aspects of the environment. According to Dr. Mirowsky, SUNY-ESF had initiated a new undergraduate environmental health major and had hired several new faculty members to teach courses within this major and conduct research with more human health relevance.

Through several conversations, we both thought it would be beneficial to see if she could host a ToxScholar visit for me. During the visit, I would meet with the environmental health undergraduates at SUNY-ESF to give them additional exposure in how to merge the fields of health and environmental science through toxicology and to discuss with faculty about research that is being done in the field of toxicology and the benefits of getting involved with SOT. During my visit, I had a busy schedule speaking with seven faculty members and over twenty undergraduates. Most—-if not all—of the faculty and students engaged with me on a range of topics including the research in which I am involved, the future of toxicology at large, and what someone should consider when applying for graduate programs. I truly do hope that, if nothing else, my visit opened the eyes of at least one person at SUNY-ESF to toxicology and that this individual will serve as a ToxScholar Ambassador.

After my visit, Dr. Mirowsky had this to say about what impact the ToxScholar Program had on SUNY-ESF: “Similar to Dr. Wages, I have also been lucky enough to serve as a speaker for the ToxScholar Program, and I am very excited to be at an institution that can now host ToxScholar speakers.  During his visit, I arranged for Dr. Wages to meet with several of the upper-level environmental health students—as well as students in environmental chemistry and environmental science—that were taking one of my classes. The students were really engaged and asked great questions about toxicology, graduate school, postdoctoral studies, and the challenges and great moments that can occur as an early-career scientist. Dr. Wages also got to meet with several faculty on campus within the Environmental Health Program and Chemistry Department. As both a past speaker and now a host, I think that the ToxScholar Program is a great asset to SOT and I hope to stay involved in the program during the course of my career.”