A toxicologist is a scientist who specializes in identifying, controlling, and preventing the effects of chemicals on human health. Some professionals perform field research in natural environments and industrial workplaces, while others conduct laboratory experiments on chemical samples. Scientists also help doctors make diagnoses for patients who may have been exposed to certain chemicals. Depending on the type of work a toxicologist performs, he or she may be employed in a hospital laboratory, university, government agency, or a private research organization.
Research scientists generally conduct field and laboratory research on toxic substances and radioactive material. They also investigate the physical and chemical properties of various substances and analyze ways pollutants affect the environment and the risks they pose to humans and animals. Researchers keep careful notes and journals, employ standard scientific techniques, and produce detailed reports about their findings. Many toxicologists are actively involved in government agencies, helping to set new industry standards and environmental protection laws.
Clinical toxicology involves applying chemical research as it directly relates to the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease. A toxicologist who works in a hospital laboratory analyzes blood and tissue samples to check for traces of poisons, pharmaceuticals, or other foreign chemicals. He or she reports results to doctors so they can make accurate diagnoses and administer the appropriate treatment.
There are many specialized aspects of toxicology that combine clinical and research elements. Forensic toxicologists, for example, aid in autopsies to determine the causes of death when poisoning or drug overdoses are suspected. They apply their skills to help solve criminal cases and are often summoned to court to report their findings. A skilled toxicologist may also be hired by a pharmaceutical company to test the safety and efficacy of new medications before they are marketed on a large scale. He or she conducts laboratory research and oversees clinical trials to fully understand the components and effects of different drugs.
A broad scientific background is important to become a toxicologist, and most working professionals hold doctoral degrees in chemistry, molecular biology, or environmental science. In addition, some research universities offer specialty degrees in toxicology to directly prepare students for the type of work they want to perform. After earning a Ph.D., a new toxicologist typically begins his or her career in a postdoctoral fellowship or research assistant position to gain practical experience. An assistant has the chance to learn techniques from established professionals, ensuring that he or she will be fully prepared for independent work.
With time and proven skills, a new scientist is granted more responsibilities and allowed to begin organizing original research studies. Successful toxicologists generally have several opportunities for advancement within the field, and many scientists eventually become lead researchers or independent consultants. Some toxicologists decide to become university professors in order to teach the subject to new generations of scientists and enjoy a high degree of research freedom working at school laboratories.