A program that focuses on the scientific study of the genetic determinants of susceptibility to external pollutants and poisons; the interaction of toxic agents with biological systems at the molecular and cellular levels; and the development of countermeasures and treatments. Includes instruction in pharmacogenetics, biomolecular structure, gene expression and regulation, transgenic modeling, toxic events signaling, transcriptional activation, mutagenesis and carcinogenesis, pulmonary toxicology, xenobiotic metabolism, oxidative stress, risk assessment, molecular dosimetry, and studies of specific toxins and treatment therapies.

Molecular toxicologists work with drugs and chemicals at the molecular level to understand what makes them toxic.

Most medications work by setting off a string of chemical reactions within the body which can be observed at the cellular and molecular levels using specialized visualization techniques. Molecular toxicologists examine the chemical structure and effects of man-made and natural compounds, paying special attention to their interactions with the body's smallest structures. As toxicologists, the goal of their work is to understand the toxic properties of each chemical and determine the point at which they become dangerous to living organisms.

Anything in a large enough dose can be toxic, even water or over-the-counter pills. In some cases, the line between a recommended dose and a lethal overdose is excruciatingly fine; molecular toxicologists must aim for precision, because a bad recommendation can be a matter of life and death.

Work in molecular toxicology may include...

  • Observing the effects of toxins on biological specimens
  • Determining safe dosages for toxin exposure or consumption
  • Analyzing various biochemical processes
  • Conducting tests and documenting findings
  • Educating the public about dangerous compounds

Most molecular toxicologists work in pharmaceutical development or regulation, with some branching out into biotechnology and product development. Some work as medical researchers in facilities run by hospitals or universities, and those in academia may teach the subject. Government agencies at the state and federal level may employ molecular toxicologists to test new compounds; sometimes they work in legal contexts, finding biological evidence that serves as proof of irresponsible or criminal chemical damage.

Becoming a molecular toxicologist requires expertise in biochemistry; accordingly, most students looking to make a career of it will focus their undergraduate studies on molecular biology or chemistry. Completing additional coursework in toxicology, physiology, and genetics can be especially helpful, and it's important to gain lab experience. Some positions in the field are available for graduates with a Bachelor's degree, but higher education is typically required for those who want to conduct research or do high-level lab work. Master's degree programs are a good option for those who want to gain field experience and boost their hiring credentials, whereas PhD programs are the ideal path for aspiring professionals wanting to do independent work and contribute to new discoveries.

If you're drawn to the small stuff, but still want to have a big impact on public health and safety, consider making a career of molecular toxicology.

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