Risky Business: My First STEP into the World of Toxicological Risk Assessment

My name is Kyle Wegner and I am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin (UW) Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center (METC). At UW, I have received an unparalleled education in toxicological mechanisms, study design, and interpreting data. However, I found myself wanting to learn more about how wet lab studies can inform decision-making processes that are often far removed from the lab environment. Unfortunately, this type of training is often not feasible in a university setting. I decided to pursue supplemental training in risk assessment tools and practices. Through network contacts, I found the Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA) Dose-Response Assessment Boot Camp. This course is designed to give participants a crash course in basic methods of risk assessment as well as context for how decisions are made at the local, federal, and global levels. A major limiting factor for me was the lack of funds to make attending this course possible. Only by applying for and receiving the Society of Toxicology (SOT) Supplemental Training for Education Program (STEP) award was I able to attend this course and gain the valuable insights that it provides.

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 2018 TERA Dose-Response Boot Camp Class

The course itself is held in Cincinnati, OH, and presented by TERA, a non-profit organization, the goals of which are aimed at developing, reviewing, and communicating risk assessment values and analyses; improving risk methods through research; and educating risk assessors, managers, and the public on risk assessment issues. These goals were very apparent during my entire five-day training course. TERA has a tremendous team of experts who engaged with the class. However, the two major instructors were Dr. Michael Dourson and Dr. Bernard Gadagbui. Drs. Dourson and Gadagbui introduced us to the four main components of risk assessment: hazard identification, dose-response assessment, exposure assessment, and risk characterization.

The first day was a broad view overview of the background knowledge necessary to understand the course material. Not only did this prove useful for my ability to engage during the course, but also solidified concepts stemming back to my didactic PhD coursework. The rest of the week was an intense, detailed glimpse into the world of risk assessment. Perhaps the most useful concept for me was learning how risk managers base their decisions. Risk assessment is truly an art and requires a lot of experience to fully understand the decision-making process. Having the ability to probe the TERA experts about their own experiences so early in my career will surely be an asset for me in the future.

Looking forward, I will implement what I have learned immediately. There is a hesitancy among my peers to explore career options in risk assessment given the knowledge hurdles that make entry into the field daunting. I will use what I have learned at the boot camp to hopefully bridge the gap for my classmates at the UW METC and make risk assessment a more approachable field for them to explore. Personally, the boot camp has inspired me to look more into risk assessment as a viable career option. I have gained a strong, foundational understanding about the logistics of dose-response-based risk assessment and have the utmost respect for risk managers who make those assessments.

I would like to thank everyone at TERA for a wonderful experience and to thank the SOT Education Committee Graduate Subcommittee, which administers the STEP award, for making this trip possible. I highly encourage all SOT trainees to apply for the STEP award and to reach out to TERA for their expert guidance and tremendous enthusiasm for toxicology!

The next STEP application deadline will be May 1, 2019.

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