Receiving a Peek into Toxicology: How a Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Travel Award Changed My Career Trajectory

SOT Communique Summer 2017 Masthead

Natalie Johnson receiving her 2006 Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Travel AwardIn March 2006, I entered the San Diego Convention Center to attend my first SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo and would experience many other “firsts” throughout the week. I was a senior biology major at Texas A&M University, and one of five students selected to receive the inaugural Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Travel Awards. The SOT meeting was my first scientific conference and my first real chance to interact with scientists in the field of toxicology. Ultimately, these experiences would reinforce my desire to pursue a PhD in toxicology and shape my future career trajectory.

I cannot overstate the impact this experience had on me as a student confronting the challenge of choosing a path as graduation approached. Prior to my SOT experience, I was considering multiple opportunities, including medical school, pharmacy school, or pursuing a PhD in fields ranging from biochemistry to viticulture. Taking biochemistry and pharmacology courses had piqued my interest in how the human body breaks down chemicals, and I remember thinking I would rather design and test drugs versus prescribe them. How to achieve this, however, remained a black box to me.

To gain experience and insight into scientific research, I began volunteering in a toxicology laboratory the summer after my junior year. My first project was to test the ability of commercially available qualitative test strips to detect aflatoxin M1 (a metabolite for the potent hepatic toxin aflatoxin B1) in milk in urine samples to determine human exposure. I validated these results using samples collected from a cohort of study participants living in rural Ghana who were at high risk for aflatoxin exposure from their diet. This exploratory project yielded enough data for me to submit an abstract to the SOT Annual Meeting and apply for the Pfizer travel award.

Text of quote about the impact of the Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Travel AwardReceipt of this award allowed me to present a poster at the SOT meeting and attend special sessions for undergraduates. As part of the SOT Undergraduate Education Program associated with the Pfizer award, I was paired with a Pfizer scientist, who served as a mentor during the course of the meeting. Luckily, the meeting in San Diego was located near the Pfizer La Jolla laboratories, where we received a tour. Overall, I learned so much about toxicology at the meeting—from the Scientific Sessions to my interactions with scientists. Perhaps most importantly, I learned the value of networking with others in the field.

Armed with information about what I could do with an advanced degree in toxicology, my decision to continue in this field was made up before my return flight landed and I had unpacked all the freebies collected at the ToxExpo. I was enthusiastic to begin my journey in toxicological research and decided to remain at Texas A&M for my PhD since I had the opportunity to work on a clinical trial aimed at reducing aflatoxin exposure in our study population in Ghana.

Text of quote about continuing to study toxicology after receiving the Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Travel AwardMy sustained involvement in SOT as a graduate student led me to many more opportunities, including meeting my postdoc mentor after giving a platform presentation at the 2010 SOT Annual Meeting on my dissertation research studying aflatoxin and PAH exposure in South Texas. I completed my postdoctoral research at Johns Hopkins University, where I was able to expand on my public health-focused research to gain vital skills in molecular toxicology and mass spectrometry techniques. I always say I have a true “One Health” training in environmental toxicology since I carried out clinical trial work in humans while at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University and then worked exclusively using in vivo and in vitro models while at the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.   

Now, as an assistant professor developing my own research program, it has been particularly fulfilling to recruit undergraduate students into my lab and encourage them to pursue career opportunities in toxicology. It is hard to believe it has been over 10 years since my first SOT Annual Meeting and receipt of the Pfizer travel award. It was a truly momentous and impactful experience.

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EDITOR’S SIDEBAR: History of the Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Student Travel Award

In the mid-2000s, longtime SOT Member and Pfizer scientist Jon C. Cook, PhD, ATS, DABT, 2011–2012 SOT President, approached the Society about having Pfizer provide support for opportunities in toxicology.

2015 Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Travel Award recipient Weelic Chong presenting his research“We wanted to introduce promising young students to the science and career opportunities in toxicology,” recalls Dr. Cook. “We realized that there was an unmet need in travel grants for undergraduates. Our hope was that this experience would encourage students to seek advanced degrees in science, especially in toxicology. The data so far suggests that this is the case.”

From 2006 to 2013, the Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Travel Awards provided support for five undergraduates to attend the SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo and present their scientific research. Many of these early awardees, like Dr. Johnson, would go on to study toxicology and become SOT members.

“The Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Student Travel Award has had a great impact on my career path,” SOT Postdoctoral Member Jessica H. Hartman, PhD, Duke University, shares. “It made me realize that I had many more options as an enzymologist than simply studying metabolism and made me very interested in pursuing toxicology. I believe it has driven me to include toxicological endpoints in my dissertation project and remains one of the single best highlights of my career.”

“Seeing the impact of the award and in response to the caliber and large number of applications, the SOT Education Committee sought additional funding,” says SOT Education Committee Chair Mindy F. Reynolds, PhD, Washington College. “Beginning in 2014, with support of SOT and the SOT Endowment Fund, the number of students funded has been expanded beyond five a year. In the 11 years of the program, this award has now recognized 103 undergraduate students from 68 institutions, including one from outside the US. Undergraduate faculty see the value of this award to our students and their paths in toxicology. Additional award recipients have told stories similar to Natalie’s, mentioning the importance of the experience in increasing their attraction to the discipline of toxicology and learning about networking, career opportunities, and the nuts and bolts of how to go about applying for and getting into graduate school.”

2017 Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Travel Award recipientsIn 2017, there were 23 Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Student Travel Award recipients. Of the 12 who have since completed their undergraduate degrees, at least six are beginning graduate school this fall pursuing degrees in toxicology or closely related fields.

“I am honored to have been considered for the Pfizer SOT travel award,” shares 2017 awardee Stacy Schkoda, BS. “Support from professionals in my future field has benefited my development, and it has greatly impacted my career and academic plans. I am excited to share I will be beginning my PhD in toxicology at North Carolina State University this fall.” 

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