Celebrating Toxicology as Part of Black History Month at Georgia Southern University

This blog was co-authored by Drs. W. Eric Gato, Ria Ramoutar, and Walter Turner.

As part of the celebration of Black History Month, faculty from the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at Georgia Southern University (GS) hosted Antonio Baines, PhD, from North Carolina Central University (NCCU) on Thursday, February 20, 2020, for our toxicological seminar series. Our main goal was to expose our undergraduate and graduate students, particularly the students of color, to research and careers in the field of toxicology. Despite the rainy weather, our event was successful and well attended by our students, who found the interactive discussions insightful.

Our toxicological seminar series was supported by several organizations, including SOT through the Faculty United for Toxicology Undergraduate Recruitment and Education (FUTURE) Committee, sponsors of the Domestic ToxScholar Outreach program; Southeastern Regional Chapter of SOT (SESOT); student chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE); GS Multicultural Student Affairs (MSC); and our department. We are greatly appreciative of these funding organizations, as they were essential to the success of our event.

A. Baines ToxScholar.pngIn the morning, Dr. Baines met with several faculty in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Some of these faculty have expertise in organic chemistry, biochemistry, vector biology and virology, and nanotechnology. Sandwiched between these meetings was an interaction with mostly undergraduate and master’s-level graduate students. Dr. Baines reviewed slides describing SOT opportunities along with his personal notes. He spoke on the importance of toxicology to the safety of society and was able to engage everyone at the scientific table. Our goal was to make this session informal and interactive to engage the students. One student expressed their impression about Dr. Baines as, “He is cool and he has good energy; he is not interested in talking at people, rather to have conversation.” This session was well attended by our students, who were appreciative of the wealth of information Dr. Baines provided about toxicology-based internships and graduate programs. At the end of this discussion, several students stayed behind to speak with him. Their animated conversation went on for about another 30 minutes.

Dr. Baines barely had time to catch his breath from the student lunch seminar when he started his second seminar and more scientific toxicological talk, “Investigating Oncogenic Cell Signaling Pathways as Potential Drug Targets in Pancreatic Cancer.” Dr. Baines’s talk is summarized as follows: Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is the third most common cause of cancer deaths in the US and in 2030 will rise to become the second. Current drug treatments have proven ineffective in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), as chemoresistance is a common occurrence in this disease. To improve survival rates, a combination treatment regimen of anti-cancer drugs will most likely be needed. The oncogenic serine/threonine PIM kinase family has been shown to regulate drug resistance in various cancers, including pancreatic cancer. Several PIM kinase inhibitors have been developed over the years and tested against many cancers, including solid tumors. Dr. Baines’s results involve validating novel compounds that can cause significant cytotoxicity in combination with PIM kinase inhibitors. The results of these studies could be used to help develop better drug combination strategies to treat pancreatic cancer and increase the survival rate of patients. He did a great job speaking to the undergraduate students in the room. Faculty and master’s-level graduate students were also present in the seminar talk.

A. Baines ToxScholar 6.png

After a short break, Dr. Baines was whisked off for his last seminar talk in our series; this one was open to the public as well as to students. We selected our theme in recognition of Black History Month, so Dr. Baines’s talk was centered around Understanding the Health and Beauty Disparities Affecting Minority Groups: Can Science Help?  We were pleased to see a lot of students attending this event since it had been raining heavily all day. Dr. Baines discussed some of the themes of his two previous talks and added new dimension with respect to minority health outcomes. Dr. Baines focused on how the use of cosmetics and proximity to chemical plants and major roadways disproportionately exposes minority groups to harmful chemicals. He outlined how cosmetics containing strong bases, phthalates, parabens, and sulfates can be endocrine disruptors and negatively impact neurological development. Dr. Baines was able to engage the audience and inspired several audience questions, with many students staying after the talk to ask additional questions.

A. Baines ToxScholar 2.pngTo wrap up our activities for the day, faculty and NOBCChE students went to dinner with Dr. Baines. Our goal was to encourage students from underrepresented groups to become more interested and invested in toxicology. Dr. Baines’s open and welcoming personality certainly helped us achieve this goal. Students were able to open up and engage in casual conversation with him and faculty. It was evident that this interaction was new to many, and they were highly appreciative of the open discussions about graduate programs, toxicology/science, and the connections they were able to make. Some of the students asked questions about toxicology careers and how to become a toxicologist. One student asked about graduate school cost since she already had student debt.

On the surveys that we were able to collect, some of the students indicated that they learned a lot about toxicology, heard about different career paths, and are more interested in toxicology. Students mentioned that they enjoyed seeing how the science they learn can be applied to various situations (environment, people, etc.). Students also mentioned they liked learning about internships in toxicology. For some students, Dr. Baines was able to provide contact information of people with similar research interests as theirs.

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