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This training program in toxicology prepares scientists to make original research contributions on the impacts of hazardous chemicals, organisms and other environmental agents on human health.  Our principal goal is to contribute toward the training of the next generation of toxicologists who will work in academia, government and industry.  Historically, we have emphasized the development and application of in vivo and in vitro experimental models designed ultimately to elucidate the molecular, cellular and tissue based mechanisms underlying environmentally induced disease.  A particular emphasis area has been on the synergisms that exist between chemical agents in the environment and inflammation by the innate or adaptive immune systems, sometimes in association with infectious biological agents (e.g., the synergism between aflatoxin and hepatitis in the etiology of human liver cancer).  We also emphasize the development of chemical, biochemical and genomic tools that aid in health-hazard identification. In this latter area, we have been particularly active in the development of novel genomic, proteomic and chemical biomarkers, which provide a modern approach for detection and characterization of the adverse effects of environmental agent exposure. 

The program encompasses a number of important areas: genetic, biochemical, pathological, and analytical toxicology. Thirteen full time members of the academic faculty and one full professor with a full time commitment to research supervise research activities available to the trainees. This grant currently funds seven predoctoral and six postdoctoral trainees in toxicology. 

Program Requirements

Requirements for doctoral program

Graduate students who wish to study toxicology at MIT must first gain admission to the Department of Biological Engineering.  Most students are in the Applied Biological Sciences area of the department, although some are in the Bioengineering PhD program.  Students take the coursework listed below, which prepares them for an MIT doctoral degree with an area of specialization  in Molecular and Systems Toxicology.  Students also attend a 6 week course in Responsible Conduct in Research. While training in toxicology is open to all students, only US residents or permanent citizens are eligible for financial support on the Training Grant. 

Requirements for the postdoctoral doctoral program

There are no formal course requirements but postdoctoral applicants must have  a background relevant to the research programs of the toxicology faculty.  Postdoctoral trainees attend two seminar programs [Bioengineering and Toxicology Seminar (BATS; 20.200) and the External Seminar Series (20.952)] along with the 6 week Resposible Conduct in Research Series.  They are also invited to participate in any coursework that matches their current or future interests.  Each postdoctoral trainee is mentored by two faculty members: their research supervisor and a career mentor appointed by Professor Leona Samson.

Required Courses

Training for participants in this Training Grant involves formal didactic courses, formal and informal seminars and other means of information exchange, as well as laboratory research projects utilizing appropriate model systems for problem definition and solution.  The Training Grant in Environmental Toxicology is run out of the academic program in Molecular and Systems Toxicology, which is a sub-program of the Department of Biological Engineering (BE). All faculty participants except for Dr. Selin have appointments in this Department, making it a convenient administrative home for the Training Grant.  All faculty also are members of the MIT Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS), which provides world class support via its research facilities cores. The BE Department of MIT has sub-disciplinary areas entitled Bioengineering and Applied Biological Sciences.  Professors Engelward and Dedon convene the toxicology faculty approximately 5 times per year to discuss curricular issues.  The Applied Biosciences (reflecting the name of Toxicology’s original departmental home) track within BE leads toward the PhD or ScD with areas of specialization in Molecular and Systems Toxicology and Pharmacology and Molecular and Systems Bacterial Pathogenesis.

In summary, BE has three areas of specialization, (i) Bioengineering, (ii) Molecular and Systems Toxicology and (iii) Pharmacology and Molecular and Systems Bacterial Pathogenesis. Most students supported on the Toxicology Training Grant come through the toxicology or pathogenesis tracks, although the Personnel Steering Committee (Professors Engelward, Dedon and Essigmann) looks at the nature of the research project more than the area of specialization when making appointments.

The typical program of study of students in the toxicology and pathogenesis tracks includes the following courses:

Genetic Toxicology (20.213)
Systems Toxicology and Pharmacology (20.201)
Animal Models in Toxicology and Pharmacology (20.202)

This area of specialization is on top of a Core curriculum consisting of:

Bimolecular Kinetics & Cellular Dynamics (20.420)
Analysis of Biological Networks (20.440)
Molecular and Cellular Pathophysiology (20.450)

Specialty courses in Molecular Epidemiology (20.215) and related areas are offered as restricted electives. 

Responsible Conduct in Research Program

Training in Responsible Conduct of Research occurs during a six week period each year.*  The 2018 Program included the following elements. 

1.  Wednesday, March 7 – “Data Interpretation” Implications of False Conclusions and Inaccuracies.

Faculty Host: Timothy Swager           Training Grant Trainee Presenter: Maggie He

Data Interpretation: Refers to the process of critiquing and determining the significance of important information, such as survey results, experimental findings, observations or narrative reports. Interpreting data is an important critical thinking. Experimental scientists base their interpretations largely on objective data and statistical calculations.  This session investigated when, if ever, in your research is it OK to make conclusions based on data that is incomplete or of questionable accuracy?                                                                                                              

2.  Tuesday, March 20 – The Importance of Scientific Literacy in an Era of Fake News and How We Can Learn and Teach to Communicate Scientific Concepts with the Popular Press and in Social Conversations.

Faculty Host: Katarina Ribbeck          Training Grant Trainee Presenter: No presenters

The topic for this session was “Fake news”. For the conversation, a study from MIT published in Science, on the spread of false information was discussed. The paper focused mostly on political news, but it had important general implications to learn from. For example, the study concludes that fake news often appears more “novel” than real news, in part due to the words that are used in tweets that spread false information (which tend to be associated with surprise and disgust), as compared to words used to communicate accurate information (which are more associated with sadness and trust). An assay published in the same issue of Science written by social scientists to address this alarming trend was also discussed. 

3.   Monday, April 2 – “An Array of Errors” Discussion of literature on a Duke University case alleging misconduct in the interpretation of complex biological data.

Faculty Host: John Essigmann           Training Grant Trainee Presenter: Christy Chao

This session shifted the focus to “fake science” and data fabrication.  The first half of the discussion centered on an article in which the E.P.A. says it wants research transparency. Under the proposed policy, the agency would no longer consider scientific research unless the underlying raw data can be made public for other scientists and industry groups to examine. As a result, regulators creating future rules would quite likely find themselves restricted from using some of the most consequential environmental research of recent decades, such as studies linking air pollution to premature deaths or work that measures human exposure to pesticides and other chemicals.  The second half of the session focused on a podcast that covered a technique that was discovered by accident that has been used to change voters’ perceptions of hot button topics.  However, one of the key papers that launched the field had to be retracted owing to alleged fabrication of the data.

4.   Wednesday, April 11 – Scientific Rigor

Faculty Host: Forest White     Training Grant Trainee Presenter: No presenter

Discussion with faculty host about the difference between maliciousness and sloppiness and the role ethics plays in the equation.                                                                                                                                                                                      

5.   Monday, April 30 – Solar Radiation Management (SRM)

Faculty Host: Jesse Kroll       Training Grant Trainee Presenter: No presenter

This session focused on Solar Radiation Management (SRM) the introduction of particles into the upper atmosphere to reduce incoming radiation that has been put forth as a temporary solution to the greenhouse warming of our planet.  The ethics and potential pitfalls of the overall topic (inducing large-scale changes to our environment) were discussed. The bigger focus was the more general question of the ethics of doing research on something that carries some sort of societal risk with it.

6.   Monday, May 7 – Overview of the Subjects: What was reviewed, what was left out?

Faculty Host: Steven Tannenbaum     Training Grant Trainee Presenters: Sarah Lewis, Jennifer Hu, and Jenny Kay

This session focused on issues that were not covered by the previous sessions. It was led by Training Grant Trainees and was intended to be from the trainees’ perspective.  It was also an opportunity to review all issues covered during the sessions and apply lessons learned to current science projects. 

*Each session above is run by one to three Trainees, and at least one to two faculty mentors are present.  

Applying to the Program

The trainee candidate works with his or her faculty supervisor to assemble an application package for Professor John Essigmann, who distributes it to the Training Grant Steering Committee for evaluation.  We strongly encourage women, underrepresented minority candidates, and persons with disabilities to apply for funding.  The training program faculty are always prepared to discuss the career opportunities in this interesting and useful field.