Academic toxicologists work in universities and other educational or research establishments. Their work ranges from fascinating, in-depth, cutting-edge research and exciting new discoveries, to the satisfaction of passing on their expert knowledge to the next generation of toxicologists.
The academic toxicologist can spend a lot of time in the laboratory. This may be as a postdoctoral scientist (following completion of a PhD) or research technician working in a university or dedicated research institute. There may also be opportunities to supervise PhD students and begin to build a research team of postdocs and researchers.
Academic toxicologists are often full of ideas and toxicological questions that need to be answered. In order to get financial support for their research, academic toxicologists spend some of their time approaching colleagues and funding bodies to support their research by putting together a proposal for funding. There are teams undertaking a wide variety of toxicology research in British universities and research institutes, much of which is presented and discussed at the BTS Annual Congress.
Academic research projects can use complex biological techniques and sophisticated equipment to allow the causes of toxicity to be determined. Often, this research follows up on the toxic effects identified by other scientists and medics. For example, an epidemiologist (someone who studies patterns of disease amongst populations) may have published research that identifies a possible link between a disease and exposure to a specific chemical. It’s difficult for the epidemiologist to prove that the chemical actually causes the disease, but a toxicologist could conduct experiments to find out if, how, and why the chemical causes the effect. The toxicologist’s research could then add plausibility to the epidemiologist’s findings.
In addition to their research, an academic toxicologist can be responsible for various teaching activities, which take place mainly in universities and may be at many levels of difficulty, such as:
- Undergraduate lectures, practical sessions, seminars and tutorials
- Taught postgraduate courses (MSc)
- Supervision of postgraduate research students (MRes and PhD)
This means that the academic toxicologist comes into contact with a constantly changing group of students of all ages and backgrounds, and has the satisfaction of passing on knowledge and launching new toxicologists in their chosen careers.
There are increasing links between academia, industry and government in both teaching and research. Today, these institutions often work hand-in-hand so that discoveries by academic toxicologists can complement the more applied findings of industry, helping to protect the public and the environment. It’s increasingly common for both undergraduate and postgraduate students to spend time working in these industries as an integral part of their training.
Academic toxicologists may also serve on government advisory committees, using their expert knowledge to offer independent advice on issues such as occupational or public health. Many companies also seek advice from expert academic toxicologists to review the risk assessments of their products.
By publishing data and disseminating knowledge, academic toxicologists try to gain a better understanding of how and why toxicity can occur. This knowledge can be used by industry and government to assess risk; for example, those posed by existing natural and man-made chemicals, and guide the design of new safer chemicals.