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What is a Toxicology Degree?
We are all exposed to chemicals. Many of them benefit society. Some, however, may threaten our health. Pesticides in the food we eat, pollutants in the air we breathe, chemicals in the water we drink, adverse effects of drugs used to treat disease – these are the subjects of toxicology.
These are the concerns of toxicologists, who seek to understand the effects of exposure to harmful substances, to improve the health and safety of humans and other living organisms, and to protect the environment in which we live.
Toxicology connects knowledge from biology, chemistry, medicine, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, public health, and environmental science.
Bachelor’s Degree in Toxicology – Four Year Duration
Toxicology undergraduate students begin their studies with foundational classes in mathematics and general science. The program then progresses to core and elective courses in the field of toxicology. Instruction takes place in both classroom and laboratory settings.
Here is a sample toxicology bachelor’s curriculum:
Mathematics and General Science Foundations
- Modern Biology
- General Chemistry
- Organic Chemistry
- Probability and Mathematical Statistics
- College Physics
- Human Physiology – the molecular physiological function of the cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems of the human body
- Biochemistry – amino acids and proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, carbohydrates, bioenergetics (how cells transform energy) and metabolism; forensic applications of biochemistry
- Toxicology of Environmental and Industrial Agents – distribution, metabolism, and effects of toxic chemicals such as pesticides; metals; chemical carcinogens; air, water, and soil pollutants; radiation and industrial solvents; hazardous waste and consumer products
- Techniques of Analytical Toxicology – sample handling; sample preparation; the principles behind various analytical techniques such as chromatography, immunoassay, spectrophotometry, and mass spectrometry; how toxicologists handle data integrity and reliability, sample confidentiality, animal use, and human subject protection
- Analytical and Quantitative Toxicology Laboratory – approaches to investigating toxicological problems; the foundations of methods used by forensic and toxicological labs and pharmaceutical companies; data collection and data analysis
- Principles of Pharmacological Toxicology – the effects of common drugs and poisons encountered in our daily lives; the toxic actions of the major drug classes
- Principles of Forensic Toxicology – overview of the basic principles and fields of forensic toxicology; the measurement of alcohol, drugs, and other toxic substances in biological specimens; interpretation of measurement results from medical and legal perspectives; documentation of lab procedures; patient confidentiality
- Cellular and Molecular Toxicology – the molecular basis of toxicology; cellular responses and protective mechanisms to defend against toxic insults
- Clinical Toxicology – introduction to the fundamental principles of clinical toxicology; common drugs, poisons, and chemical agents and investigating the causes of adverse effects on the human body; assessing the impairment of human performance caused by these agents; biological sample collection and analysis
Biology / Chemistry Electives
- Eukaryotic Cell Biology – the cell biology of eukaryotes – plants, animals, fungi, and protists (microscopic and single cell organisms) – whose cells have a nuclear membrane that surrounds the nucleus
- Human Anatomy and Physiology Laboratory
- Human Pathology
- Forensic Pathology
- Quantitative Analysis
- Inorganic Chemistry
- Physical Chemistry
- Cancer Biology
Master’s Degree in Toxicology – Two to Three Year Duration
At the master’s level students can design their program in consultation with a faculty member, to focus on their particular area of interest. The master’s program’s culminating requirement is a thesis based on original research.
Doctoral Degree in Toxicology – Four to Six Year Duration
The master’s program involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of toxicology.
Most toxicologists hold either a master’s or doctoral degree in the field. Below are descriptions of some possible specializations that graduate students may choose to pursue:
Environmental Toxicology – focuses on the impact of environmental pollution and pollutants originating in human activity; possible research areas include:
- Ecotoxicology - the study of the diverse effects of chemicals on ecosystems structure, functions, and biodiversity
- Non-target Species Toxicity – species that are incidentally impacted by an action towards a target species (example: species such as sharks, rays, and turtles, that are incidentally captured while fishing for tuna, the target species)
- Environmental Monitoring – an environmental management practice that is implemented on most construction and development projects to monitor whether the quality of the environment is getting better or worse
- Pesticide Chemistry and Toxicology
- Risk Assessment
Molecular Toxicology – focuses on the effects of chemical components on living organisms; possible research areas include:
- Molecular Toxic Mechanisms – deals with the three factors that determine the toxicity of a substance: its chemical structure, the extent to which the substance is absorbed by the body, and the body’s ability to detoxify the substance and eliminate it from the body
- Toxicogenomics – the study of the structure and function of the genome as it responds to cellular exposure to foreign substances
- Proteinomics – the identification and study of the totality of the proteins in an organism
Biomedical Toxicology – the movement of toxic compounds in the body and the effects of chemicals on biological systems; possible research areas include:
- Toxicokinetics – the study of how a substance gets into the body and what happens to it in the body
- Toxicodynamics – the study of the effects of a toxicant on a biological system
- Systems Toxicology – the use of advanced analytical and computational tools to understand the ways in which foreign substances alter biological systems
- Drug Addiction – the toxicology of drug abuse and drug addiction
- Biomarkers and Biomonitoring – the study of biological markers or measures of a normal or abnormal biological state, and the observation and assessment of those states and ongoing changes related to toxic exposure
Clinical Toxicology – focuses on the adverse effects of drugs and other chemicals in humans, and especially how to treat patients who have been exposed to a toxic substance
Veterinary Toxicology – the specialty of veterinary medicine dealing with the effects of poisons in the animal kingdom
Degrees Similar to Toxicology
The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.
A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.
Majors in this field study engineering and the life sciences to create new products – such as vaccines, medicines, growth hormones for plants, and food additives – for the agricultural, industrial, and environmental industries. Among typical classes are biochemistry, general biology, cell biology, chemistry, and genetics.
Chemistry deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.
The objective of forensic science is to solve crimes by applying science and scientific methods to the justice system. Degrees programs in the field, therefore, train students to use cutting-edge techniques to examine and interpret autopsy results and evidence in criminal and civil cases.
Because forensic science draws upon the sciences of biology, physics, and chemistry, these subject areas make up an important part of the forensics curriculum.
Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. These ‘microbes’ include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa, and algae.
Pharmacologists study how drugs and medicines work so they can be used in the right way. The work naturally involves an understanding of chemical and biological interactions.
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.
Skills You’ll Learn
- Ability to work both independently and in teams
- Ability to work under pressure
- Comfort using complex equipment
- Communication and interpersonal skills
- Computer literacy and information technology
- Experiment design
- Math skills
- Meticulous attention to detail
- Observation, investigative, and problem-solving skills
- Practical lab skills
- Report writing
- Research and analytical skills
- Safety consciousness
What Can You Do with a Toxicology Degree?
Toxicology programs prepare students to work in these principal sectors:
- Academia – as scientists/researchers, professors, research associates and technicians, and laboratory technicians
- Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Industries – as research and development scientists, clinical researchers, regulatory affairs specialists, medical science liaisons, sales representatives, drug safety associates, clinical trial monitors, pharmaceutical marketing and information specialists, and laboratory technicians
- Healthcare – as clinical scientists, research associates, lab technicians, and clinical study coordinators
- Forensics – as forensic toxicologists, who perform tests on samples of bodily fluids collected by forensic pathologists during an autopsy or by crime scene investigators
- Insurance – as insurance risk analysts
- Government – as scientists/researchers, environmental assessors and monitors, regulatory compliance officers, drug safety monitors, chemical risk assessment analysts, drug/toxicant information specialists
- Chemical, Cosmetic, and other Consumer Product Companies – as new product safety assessors
- Medical/Scientific Journalism – as writers, editors, and consultants
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