What is a toxicologist?

A toxicologist studies the adverse effects of chemical agents on biological systems. The toxicologist performs studies to determine how easily a chemical enters an organism, how it behaves inside the organism, how rapidly it is removed from the organism, what cells are affected by the chemicals, and what cell functions are impaired.

The professional activities of toxicologists fall into three main categories: descriptive, mechanistic, and regulatory. The descriptive toxicologist is concerned directly with toxicity testing. In this field she designs the appropriate toxicity tests in experimental animals or cell cultures to yield information that can be used to evaluate the risk posed to humans and the environment by exposure to specific chemicals. The mechanistic toxicologist is concerned with determining the mechanisms by which chemicals exert their toxic effects on living organisms. The regulatory toxicologist has the responsibility of deciding (on the basis of data provided by the descriptive toxicologist) if a drug or other chemical poses a sufficiently low risk to people when marketed for a stated purpose.

What makes a good toxicologist?

Good toxicologists are curious about the way chemicals and environmental factors interact with the body. They must be interested not only in the final outcome of that interaction but what goes on at the molecular level (i.e., how individual chemicals interact with cells and cellular functions). A toxicologist must be capable of critical thinking and have good observation skills. She must be a good communicator and have a strong background in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, and anatomy. Writing skills are essential for getting project funds and for publishing results. Good oral presentation skills are important for communicating results and providing data to regulatory boards.

What is life as a toxicologist like?

Toxicologists address their hypotheses by observing the effects of model compounds in whole animals and cellular extracts. Therefore, they must be willing to work with animals in a humane and appropriate manner to develop information that is necessary to translate to human applications. Because chemical interactions involve various biological systems, toxicologists must be able to work with researchers in other fields outside of toxicology to get necessary data to understand important mechanisms. In addition, researchers in applied toxicology must have a broad understanding of the field in order to provide information to forensic, clinical, or regulatory agencies.

How do I become a toxicologist?

Toxicology is a broad field that can accommodate many interests. To become a toxicologist you should take as much math and science in high school as possible. Be sure to study biology, chemistry, physics, and math such as trigonometry, algebra, and calculus. In addition to general studies, your undergraduate education should include environmental studies, biological sciences, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, calculus, and statistics. Courses in areas of specialization can be taken in graduate school to obtain M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in toxicology.

What/where are the jobs?

Toxicologists can work in research positions at universities and private industry and applied areas primarily in private industry and government. Research in toxicology can include studies of the toxicity of chemicals on the various systems of the body including nervous system, endocrine system, digestive system, respiratory system, immune system, and cardiovascular system. Such research can assess the effects of toxicity on such target organs as the kidneys, lungs, liver, heart, eyes, etc.

Applied toxicology includes studies in three specialized areas: forensic, clinical, and environmental. Forensic toxicology is a hybrid of analytical chemistry and fundamental toxicological principles. It is concerned primarily with the establishment of cause-of-death in postmortem investigations. Clinical toxicology is concerned with the effects of drugs on disease or with abuse. The clinical toxicologist provides important information to emergency room physicians and nurses. Environmental toxicologists usually study the effects of pollutants on wildlife and subsequently on the ecosystem, including the effects of environmental pollutants on humans.

For more information

Society of Toxicology

Society of Forensic Toxicologists

Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology (CIIT)

WEB Toxicology Resources

Melecita Archuleta
Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM
E-mail: melarch@sandia.gov