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

I have a BSc in Biochemistry (Toxicology) from the University of Surrey which included a professional training year working on drug metabolism in a pharmaceutical company. My PhD was also at the University of Surrey and related to drug metabolism. I then stayed on at Surrey for many years, initially at the Robens Institute of Industrial and Environmental Health and Safety researching in vitro approaches to toxicity testing and also conducting investigative toxicological studies as a contract service. Over the years I became more involved in consultancy work, advising on human health risks of chemicals in diverse areas, including environmental exposure, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, food chemicals, etc. I had a number of contracts with other organisations. Two of these were particularly important for my current job: I provided technical advice and assistance to the EU Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits in Luxembourg, and I was an adviser to the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) for a research programme on risk assessment of chemicals in food.
I joined the Food Standards Agency soon after it was established in 2000. I head a team providing risk assessments on all types of chemical in food (including food additives, environmental and process contaminants, pesticides, veterinary drug residues, dietary supplements, toxins and natural constituents of food). I am scientific secretary to the UK’s Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, and part of the secretariat to its sister committees on mutagenicity and carcinogenicity. I am also a vice-chair of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Scientific Panel on Contaminant in the Food Chain, and regularly work with the World Health Organization (WHO) on activities related to safety of chemicals in food, in both cases as an independent expert in a personal capacity rather than as a UK representative.

Why did you want to study Toxicology?

From my professional training year in drug metabolism, I became interested in the influence of metabolism on toxicity. As my career progressed I really enjoyed the intellectual challenge of integrating different aspects of science in a risk assessment aimed at protecting human health.

What’s a typical day at work like?

When in London I will be reviewing risk assessments produced by members of my team to ensure that they are proportionate, understandable and scientifically defensible. I provide advice on risks associated with chemicals detected in foods at levels that should not be present, in order to underpin decisions on whether the foods need to be withdrawn from sale, and advise on safety of proposed regulatory limits for various chemicals. I also often need to provide our press office with the facts behind the latest food chemical scare story in the tabloid press. When working with EFSA or WHO, I am contributing to reports on safety of food contaminants or additives.

What are the best things about being a toxicologist in the Government?

I feel my work matters. It underpins important decisions aimed at protecting the health of the UK public. My policy colleagues in the Agency need and appreciate my views in order to do their work. I also like the opportunities to work with scientists involved in risk assessment across Government departments and in other countries.