Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration Key to Increasing Toxicology’s Impact—Communicating in Toxicology (Part 1 of 2)


By David Faulkner posted 05-17-2017 11:19


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Toxicology often is a collaborative profession, in that practitioners frequently rely on diverse teams of experts to solve complex problems. But while toxicologists may seek collaborations, the reverse is not always true. Toxicologists are often omitted from business, engineering, or legislative work groups—or even the work groups of related disciplines like molecular biology or chemistry—unless something has already gone terribly wrong, and expertise is sought for diagnostic, rather than preventative purposes. So how can we encourage other professions to consider our expertise from the start?

Richard Barker delivers a plenary lecture, “The Role of Precision Medicine in Closing the Innovation Gap,” during the 2017 SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo. This is the first article in a two-part exploration of the ways that toxicology research spans numerous scientific fields and how we can further entice other communities—scientific and beyond—to communicate and collaborate with us. In this installment, we hear from individual SOT members whose work defies the notion of research silos and for whom effective interdisciplinary communication is a matter of everyday life. In the Summer 2017 issue of the Communiqué (coming in August), the concluding part will look at how SOT and the toxicology community are working to build bridges between our discipline and others.

From an individual standpoint, toxicological research trends towards interdisciplinary studies for one simple reason: necessity.

Consider the work of SOT Member Dana C. Dolinoy, PhD, University of Michigan School of Public Health. Her research into the epigenetic mechanisms of developmental toxicology requires the use of "animal models, human clinical, and human epidemiological approaches to tackle this important [and complex] topic.” Or the work of Richard Barker, OBE, DPhil, Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Medical Innovation (CASMI), which makes use of medical science, pharmacology, ethics, economics, law, and other areas, making his work “inherently inter-disciplinary or even trans-disciplinary,” he says.

Which begs the question of how many fields can you pull into your orbit before you’ve left the realm of toxicology? For Gary W. Miller, PhD, editor-in-chief of Toxicological Sciences, the question is moot: "I don’t view my field as toxicology or neuroscience or Parkinson’s disease. I view my field by all of the scientific questions in which I am interested.”

Graphic image of quote from articleFor SOT Member Nancy D. Denslow, PhD, University of Florida, this philosophy led her from her training in biochemistry and molecular biology to environmental toxicology, where developing trans-disciplinary skills was essential. “I’ve had to learn a lot on my own about fish physiology, toxicology, field considerations, mechanisms of toxicity, ’omics methods, and risk assessment,” she shares, but “What makes the area very interesting and challenging is the new information that is required for every project.”

Of course, it’s not really feasible to be an expert in every known field of scientific study, and all the SOT members I spoke with were adamant that effective toxicology research relies on effective collaboration. Nowhere is this more vital, perhaps, than in the business of drug development, where coordinating with various experts can literally mean the difference between creating a drug that saves a life versus one that could have deadly consequences. “As a [safety assessment] team leader, I rely on the experts in each field... and integrate these recommendations into a single strategy for a given molecule or therapeutic target,” says SOT Member Evan A. Thackaberry, PhD, DABT, Genentech, Inc. The key to success, according to Dr. Thackaberry, is communication: "The core of drug development is the cross-functional team, and you have to be able to speak the language of each function.”

How you learn to speak these other languages and form collaborations can vary, but many of my interviewees agreed that professional societies and conferences are excellent resources. “Through membership in various professional societies, [I’ve] established networks across multiple disciplines... [and by] attending talks outside my own field I have been able to expand our research to include new tools, such as metabolomics and epigenome editing,” shares Dr. Dolinoy.

Toxicoepigenetics CCT Meeting Co-Chairs Shaun McCullough and Dana DolinoyExploring groups and meetings outside of your main field of expertise is critical to producing the best science and finding the most interesting collaborations, finds 2015 SOT Public Communication Awards Recipient Andrew D. Maynard, PhD, Arizona State University Risk Innovation Lab, whose work defies categorization, ranging from physics and material sciences to risk assessment and toxicology before veering into public administration and other realms. “Part of the challenge here is engaging with others outside the field, rather than simply trying to educate them,” he says. “Because the toxicology worldview or the multiple toxicology worldviews aren’t the only way of seeing and understanding the world, there’s got to be the willingness to learn new things and adjust your perspective in any effective communication.”

One avenue to foster communication outside of your field is to simply get folks from different subject areas in one room to network and cross-fertilize ideas, which is one of the objectives of the SOT Contemporary Concepts in Toxicology meetings. CCT meetings, notes Dr. Dolinoy, provide "a great opportunity to bring together non-toxicologist scientists around an important scientific topic. [For example,] our CCT in toxicoepigenetics in fall 2016 included basic scientists, risk assessors, and legal/policy experts."

But are these individual, collaborative efforts enough and what can we do as individual researches and as SOT members to show other professions what toxicology has to offer? Watch for the follow-up to this article in which we’ll explore SOT’s bridge-building efforts in greater detail. In the meantime, let us know what you think via Facebook, Twitter, or a comment on this post. Let’s start the conversation!

David Faulkner, MPH, is a student member of SOT and a frequent contributor to the Communiqué. He currently is a PhD candidate in molecular toxicology at The University of California, Berkeley. Beyond writing for the Communiqué, Mr. Faulkner and fellow SOT Member Evan A. Thackaberry, PhD, DABT, Genetech Inc., have started a science communication blog at