From Toxicologist to ToxScholar: Contributing to Our Field without a Lab

When I retired in the Fall of 2016, the suggestion was made that I become a ToxScholar speaker. I jumped at the chance to speak about toxicology to undergraduates and to share my enthusiasm for the field. It’s easy and incredibly satisfying, and we need more ToxScholars out there, doing this, and I’m hoping this short article will help you want to volunteer.

The Society of Toxicology (SOT) provides a massive slide set from which I selected about a dozen slides, just to give them some basic information and to start the conversation. I’ve found that even these slides (which describe the basic roles in which toxicologists can serve) are often too advanced for an audience who is really fundamentally ignorant of what working scientists actually do for a living, so more and more of my talks start off with those basic descriptions. I then move into what sorts of jobs and roles toxicologists can do, and this distinguishes wet-lab scientists from CRO investigators from regulatory and consulting positions. Finishing off with Shayne Gad’s slide showing that there are fewer graduates each year than there are positions, makes a pretty compelling message, particularly when coupled with the information that, unlike medical school, grad school for a PhD will leave you with minimal debt.

The general discussion of career choices is followed by either a description of some of the work I did (to give them some concrete examples), or my career trajectory and what led up to and through each change, which is something no one ever discusses, and for which they are always hungry.

So far, I’ve been focusing on presenting to small liberal arts undergrad institutions. I‘ve done about five so far, but found the greatest resonance at my alma mater (Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana) where I was living proof that someone from their school could readily have a fulfilling career doing fun and engaging science AND make a living at it. (Remember: undergrads are SO full of anxieties and uncertainties about what they’re going to do…. Providing some concrete paths ahead is often received with such gratitude).

This reproductive toxicologist always finishes off by making the case that the need for immunotoxicology specialists is particularly acute, and we talk about that some, so that I can leave them with a feeling that they have an inside track on what sort of skill set would give them a leg up in the job market.

I also make the case that chance plays a huge role in any career, but that it can be influenced, and I tell them clearly HOW to influence that.

Arguably, the most remarkable thing about a ToxScholar talk is how different from a data-driven talk the whole thing is. We’re there to educate an audience that is ignorant of the most basic parts of being a working scientist, so while the talk needs to be linear enough to be followed, it lacks the requirement for scientific rigor and documentation that characterizes so many of our other talks. It’s much more freewheeling and enthusiastic…you’re providing a few toxicology concepts, selling a field, showing them how to be as successful as you, and showing by your presence that this is possible. In fact, the more approachable and relatable you are (i.e., the more you drop the “I’m an impressive scientist at a big-name organization doing impressive research in exchange for seeming to be more like them), the more of an impact this message makes.

Many scientists “want to give back,” and I can attest that there is no more powerful way to do exactly that than to return to your undergrad institution and talk to science students there about toxicology as a career. The SOT has slides (I’d also be more than happy to send you the ones I use), so all you need is the willingness to reach out and offer to come speak. I’ve yet to have any faculty at a small school say “Nah, that’s OK, we’re not interested”; their reaction is always enthusiastically receptive.  It’s an hour that will leave EVERYone happier and feeling better about themselves. I cannot recommend this highly enough!

Details about applying are found on the ToxScholar web page.

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