Using STEP Award Funding to Learn about Risk Assessment

By Anne Turco posted 05-09-2019 13:45


As a third-year graduate student at the University of WisconsinMadison, I work in Dr. Chad Vezina’s lab researching the impact of in utero and lactational TCDD exposure on prostate neuroanatomy and smooth muscle contraction. My experience as a graduate student at UWMadison has included excellent coursework, exceptional mentorship, and numerous opportunities for career development. Knowing I was interested in a career in government, I tailored my career development plan to include activities to build business acumen, soft skills, and leadership skills. I knew knowledge of risk assessment would be essential to be a competitive job candidate, but UWMadison didn’t offer courses or workshops on the subject. To fill this gap, I researched opportunities to supplement my education.

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I learned about the Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA) Dose-Response Assessment Boot Camp from the SOT website and saw a potential opportunity to learn about risk assessment during graduate school. To attend this course, however, I needed funding. I applied for and received the SOT Supplemental Training for Education Program (STEP) award, which enables graduate students to obtain training related to toxicology that enhances career opportunities by filling gaps in students’ education. Receiving this award gave me the means to achieve my goal of filling this gap in my education and career development.

TERA is a nonprofit organization that functions as a consulting agency to develop, review, and communicate risk assessment values and analyses to both government and industry. The TERA Dose-Response Assessment Boot Camp is a five-day course in Cincinnati, Ohio. I attended from April 1 to April 5. The boot camp web page describes the course as an intensive, hands-on, and in-depth” training in hazard assessment, dose-response assessment, and the use of computer modeling in assessment. Intensive is definitely the right descriptor for the course. When I arrived on the first day, we received a binder that was as thick as my coffee mug was tall and that weighed about 15+ pounds. The binder contained the material we would cover that week, which on first glance was certainly daunting. But as the course began, the slides were very well put together and made it easy to take notes and engage with the material.

The course was taught by two experienced and knowledgeable instructors, Michael Dourson, PhD, and Bernard Gadagbui, PhD. Dr. Dourson was an engaging and experienced instructor who had worked for the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) for most of his career before coming to work at TERA. During his lectures he gave examples about how he used hazard and risk assessment to evaluate various chemicals during his time at the US EPA. As a graduate student with limited experience in “real-life” risk assessment and with an interest in working in government, hearing these examples solidified the concepts and made me further engage with the material. Dr. Gadagbui was an equally knowledgeable instructor and had worked for TERA for most of his professional career. His dry humor and jokes kept subjects like toxicokinetics and dose-response assessment calculations interesting.  

TERA Risk Assessment Boot Camp 2019.pngDuring the first day of the course, we covered the basic concepts of risk assessment, hazard characterization, and mode of action. We learned definitions to provide a solid foundation for the calculations and modeling we were going to learn later in the week. The second day of the course focused on dose-response, oral dosimetry, and inhalation dosimetry. We then learned about dose-response modeling using two different software programs, RDDR and the US EPA Benchmark Dose Software, the next day. The instructors walked us through how to use modeling to generate benchmark doses if those are not found from experimental studies. The programs are free to download but are underutilized by most risk assessors because the programs require a learning curve. I see great value in knowing how to use these programs and am privileged to have them in my risk assessment tool kit. We ended the week by learning about toxicokinetics, PBPK modeling, and risk characterization. The course was incredibly comprehensive and covered most topics with which a risk assessor would need to be familiar.

At the end of the course, the material was summarized with a group project. Each group received an unknown chemical and a few articles describing studies done in animals and humans. From there, we performed a risk assessment and gave our recommendations for the safe exposure limit. The groups presented their findings on the final day of the course and were “cross-examined” and questioned by the class on their proposal. It was a great opportunity to learn from other students and exercise risk assessment skills.

Not only did I learn how to perform risk assessment, hazard assessment, and dose-response analysis, but also I met and networked with many professionals from a variety of industries, including consumer products, biotechnology, environmental engineering, and even a government toxicologist from Chile. Most of the other students in the course were professionals with varying years of experience in risk assessment looking for continued education. I learned from their stories and the questions they had about the material. Further, it was a unique opportunity to learn about a variety of industry and government careers.

Overall, I benefited greatly from this opportunity, and I believe I took a good STEP into risk assessment that will be hugely valuable to my career development. I feel I understand the basic concepts of risk assessment, can perform basic calculations, and understand basic modeling. I will translate these skills into my future career after graduation. I expect this experience will make me a competitive job candidate, as knowledge of risk assessment is important when applying for most toxicology careers in industry or government. I am extremely grateful to SOT for providing me with this opportunity and recommend the experience to anyone. I also advise graduate students to wait until the final year of their PhD to take the course. The course taught many practical tools that would be most helpful to bring back and immediately apply to the workplace.

Apply for the STEP award if you are interested in pursuing an opportunity like this boot camp. The next STEP application deadline is October 9, 2019.