David Government Toxicology

What career path and training has led you to your current job?

I graduated with a BSc Biochemistry (Toxicology) from the University of Surrey. This included a research project investigating the effect of a chemical found naturally in wine on colon cancer, and another looking at the effect of a food colouring on the thyroid. The course also included a ‘professional training year’ where I had a great time working as an industrial toxicologist for Clairol in New York. I stayed at Surrey for a short lab-based summer project looking at the effects of a medicine on the liver, funded by AstraZeneca. I then went on to do more academic study with a PhD with the Cancer Therapeutics team at the Institute of Cancer Research, which is part of the University of London.

After finishing my PhD, I joined the chemical risk assessment unit of the Food Standards Agency, as a regulatory toxicologist. This involved risk assessment and communication, managing research, and working with the UK’s independent advisory Committee on Toxicity. Recently, I moved to the Health Protection Agency, as a Senior Toxicologist, working more closely with the Government Committees on Mutagenicity and Carcinogenicity, and advising on the risks associated with drinking water, contaminated soil and waste.

Why did you want to study Toxicology?

When I was at school, I used a careers software program that asked me questions about what I liked doing, then suggested a list of jobs. The program said that I’d really like every aspect of toxicology. I didn’t know what toxicology was, but when I read up on it, it sounded fascinating. The program was right and I still find it fascinating 15 years later!

What’s a typical day at work like?

I’m an office-based toxicologist (which is probably good because I was a bit of a liability in the lab!). Most of my time is spent trying to find and interpret scientific evidence of a chemical’s safety. There’s rarely a full set of safety information for environmental contaminants, so there’s a lot of detective work and expert judgement required to fill in the gaps in the jigsaw.

I prepare risk assessments, evaluate toxicology studies, prepare discussion papers and statements for the Committees, and give advice on the risks posed by chemicals to a variety of people (colleagues, ministers, civil servants, journalists, healthcare professionals, and the public).

What are the best things about being a toxicologist in the public sector?

I chose to work for the Government because it gives me the feeling that all my skills as a toxicologist are being used to make the world safer. It’s very rewarding when I know that I’ve helped stop people from being exposed to chemicals at a level that might harm them. I also believe that it’s important that the discoveries made by researchers are understood and that the Government takes appropriate action, so it’s rewarding to know that I’m a key part of that process.

Basically it’s great to do a job that you really believe in, working with different chemicals, and with a wide variety of scientists and people from other professions.