From Pharmacology to Toxicology and Back Again: How Networking and Diversifying Your Education Leads to Career Opportunities

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As a young girl, Latresa Billings, PharmD, BCPS, who is currently a clinical coordinator and residency coordinator at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, watched her grandmother regimentally take pills that were designed to help manage her diabetes. Her mother, on the other hand, was not as diligent. Seeing the effects of the pills and the consequences of not taking them, Dr. Billings began wondering, “When you take a pill, how does it know where to go and what to do?” Thus, her interest in pharmaceuticals was born.

What she didn’t know at the time was that her journey to discover how pills work would involve a stopover that included toxicological research, fellowships, and other opportunities. Through the support of SOT members and programs, Dr. Billings gained valuable research and networking experience, which would impact her clinical pharmacology career pathway and would provide her with skills and knowledge that was a foundation many of her colleagues lacked.

iStock_000091432035_Full resize.jpg“Keep your outlook broad,” she urges students and early-career scientists. “Use your current experiences as a foundation for where you would like to go, but do not limit your outward focus to the area you’re currently practicing. Be open to reaching out to areas that may be new to you.”

For Dr. Billings, her initial area of practice was a pre-pharmacy track at the University of Georgia, but to broaden her post-graduation career opportunities, she declared a major in environmental health sciences. This decision led her to the academic classrooms of SOT members Mary Alice Smith, PhD, and Phillip L. Williams, PhD.

The connections among SOT members helped further Dr Billings’ academic endeavors, as Dr. Smith’s link to SOT Member Janice Chambers, PhD, at Mississippi State University enabled Dr. Billings to discover the summer fellowship at Mississippi State University, for which she was accepted and completed in the summer of 1994. That experience, in turn, led to a placement in the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology (CIIT) lab of SOT Member James Bond, PhD, the following summer.

Her professors encouraged her to apply for an SOT Undergraduate Travel Award, and in 1995, Dr. Billings found herself in Baltimore, Maryland, attending her first SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo. Beyond the scheduled undergraduate activities, her professors also encouraged her and the other students to make the most of the opportunity that they had been given. “One of the things our professors reiterated was that ‘this is a meeting for introductions. You’ll meet a lot of people, enjoy a lot of fun activities, but you need to go to presentations and poster sessions to get a better idea of what researchers are doing in the field.”

JC2_4674 resize.jpgFor a meeting of such large attendance, “It’s a bit overwhelming and it’s a lot of information to take in,” she recalls, “but the Society took extra steps to pull us together, focus our attention on the principles of the field, and to give us a lot of introductory information to toxicology.”

Dr. Billings wanted to learn more about toxicology and to use the meeting as a stepping stone for the next phase of her career and education. “I was wondering, ‘Are there other opportunities to get involved with any other research. What’s the next step for making a connection with the various institutions?’” she relates.

Dr. Billings discovered a tight-knit community where researchers knew each other by name and by their work. As she mingled with the other undergraduate travel awardees, she had the privilege of attending Arizona Night Meet Up. At the gathering of friends and colleagues during the SOT Annual Meeting, she was introduced to SOT Member A. Jay Gandolfi, PhD, who connected with her after the meeting and encouraged her to apply for the master’s program at the University of Arizona, which offered experiences in both pharmacology and toxicology. She applied, was accepted, and headed to the University of Arizona in Tucson to work in the lab of SOT Past President I. Glenn Sipes, PhD, ATS. Before completing her master’s degree, Dr. Billings transitioned to the College of Pharmacy and completed her doctorate in pharmacy at the University of Arizona, a doctorate that was made easier, she says, due to her background in toxicology and research.

“My toxicology studies helped me perform academically well among my colleagues once I started pharmacy school,” she says. “Particularly, during those first couple of years, the foundation coursework was a bit easier for me than for my classmates. Hence, I was able to even tutor several of my fellow pharmacy classmates.”

When asked if she thought she would be as effective in her current position without her toxicology studies and fellowships, Dr. Billings emphatically replies, “Absolutely not. I think that the foundation provided during my toxicology training provided me with a solid knowledge base for my career path in pharmacy that I am engaged in now: understanding how drugs act and where they act, looking at drug-drug interactions, understanding the metabolism and distribution processes, procedures related to research study protocols, and understanding pharmacogenomics.”

Billings Quote.pngBecause of her experiences, Dr. Billings urges students and early-career scientists to “remain in touch with your programs through your years of practice. Keep in touch with the colleagues who have transitioned through the select programs with you because those people can serve as necessary resources for your future development.”

She adds, “Whether attending local or national meetings, use this avenue for building your networking community. The profession develops through the networking of the family of colleagues carrying on the legacies of their individual programs and sharing their latest research findings. In turn, each investigator contributes to fulfill the greater aspiration of the Society of Toxicology to enhance intellectual, scientific expansion through collaboration among colleagues to better understand the science of toxicology and its impact on the health and safety of animals, humans, and the environment.”

In closing, Dr. Billings notes, “The SOT Undergraduate Diversity Program opens the doors of opportunity to a large variety of career fields for exploration, growth, and advancement in the areas of pharmacology, toxicology, and beyond. My career path serves as a dynamic example of the impact of diverse opportunities to learn more about a scientific discipline and innovation in the name of science within our society. Because of my earlier exposures to the world of science and networking through SOT, I have been able to excel in my clinical pharmacy practice today.”

Applications for students and advisors for the 2017 Undergraduate Diversity Program are due October 9.

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