The ToxScholar Program Provides a Great Opportunity to Serve as a Toxicology Ambassador


By Elena Braithwaite posted 12-09-2013 14:29


Each year the Committee on Diversity Initiatives funds Domestic ToxScholar visits to minority undergraduate institutions to advance its goal of introducing toxicology to groups underrepresented in the sciences. The program offers up to $500 for SOT members to visit institutions, talk about toxicology, and establish mentoring relationships with faculty and students to encourage careers in toxicology. The Society of Toxicology (SOT) helps with resources and material. Elena Braithwaite recently visited her alma mater, Hampton University. In sharing her story and experiences with the students at Hampton, she helped kindle an interested in toxicology in the minds of budding young scientists.


The ToxScholar Program Provides a Great Opportunity to Serve as a Toxicology Ambassador

By Elena Braithwaite, PhD, DABT

History definitely repeats itself. Yesterday’s Exxon Valdez and Chernobyl tragedies are today’s BP Oil Spill and Fukushima Daiichi disasters. World events that increased my curiosity in science at a young age are still serious problems today and the commonalities that exist across each of our generations are truly remarkable. My impression is that many current undergraduate students do not know that toxicologists apply basic research findings to solve complex health and environmental problems. If they did, they might understand the value of our work or become interested in pursuing a career in toxicology themselves. I am grateful to SOT for realizing the importance of expanding awareness and promoting toxicology careers through interactions with undergraduate students and for implementing the ToxScholar program. 

During high school, I became very interested in the role scientists play in protecting the environment. Therefore, I decided to attend Hampton University and major in Marine Science and Environmental Studies. At that time, I had very little knowledge about the field of toxicology and had no idea toxicologists were instrumental in protecting the public and the environment. My perspective changed during my junior year when I participated in a summer internship program at the US Environmental Protection Agency. I became fascinated with the field of toxicology and, with a lot of encouragement from my parents, I went on to obtain a PhD from the University of Kentucky and completed two postdoctoral fellowships (including one at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Strasbourg, France). Recently, I have been working on cellular defense mechanisms used to combat the detrimental effects of environmental pollutants such as cigarette smoke, free radicals, and heavy metals.

v2Hampton (2).jpgWhile this is my story, each scientist has their own path that can serve as inspiration for the next generation. I am grateful to the scientists in my life who told me about their careers in science and the work they were doing to protect living organisms and prevent disease. When I found out about the ToxScholar Program that provides funding for professionals to visit universities and talk about their career, I was excited to go back to my alma mater and try to motivate the next generation of young professionals.

I received a very warm welcome at Hampton University. One of my former professors, Benjamin Cuker, made it possible for me to speak with seven different groups of students by incorporating my talk into course curriculums or including my scientific presentation in their seminar sessions. Many students were surprised to hear about the broad spectrum of important work toxicologists do to decrease the risk associated with exposure to compounds encountered by all living organisms. Talking about my experiences in graduate school and research projects helped students understand the commitment necessary to be successful and why research is important. Even if students thought that toxicologists were “mad scientists” who had the ability to poison people at first, by the end of my talk everyone was convinced that the work toxicologists do in risk assessment, regulatory science, and basic research is paramount for understanding the impact chemicals have on global health. It was also impressive to hear the novel ways students envisioned interacting with toxicologists in the future, though their major may be psychology, communications, or history. 

Due to decreases in funding, many students will not have the opportunity to learn about toxicology through hands-on experiences. As a result, it is even more important to increase awareness of the field and provide a supportive network for undergraduate students. Exchanges like the ones fostered within the ToxScholar framework will help develop a pipeline that supports a strong, intelligent and diverse workforce. I applaud the SOT for realizing that short interactions can have a profound effect on people’s lives and thank them for this program and for this opportunity. 


Each of you has a story to share that might inspire young scientists. Visit your alma mater or a school near your home or a school in a town you are visiting. Visits to minority institutions are funded through the Committee on Diversity Initiatives and trips to other undergraduate instituions are funded through the Education Committee. The SOT website has information on how you might participate in the SOT ToxScholar Program.