Programs in toxicology teach people how poisons and other chemical hazards affect living beings. Students learn chemistry, genetics, and pharmacology. They study the negative effects specific substances have on people and other organisms.
Paracelsus, a medieval scientist, is often called the father of toxicology. He coined the phrase, "the dose makes the poison." He meant that nearly anything can be poisonous; it just depends how much of it you take. And Paracelsus was right. Even too much water can be bad for you.
While toxicologists may not focus on water, they may look at what's IN water that might be harming us. Are there harmful chemicals, such as pesticides? How about harmful substances that damage our cells and even genes? What are the chemicals that might cause cancer? These are just some of the questions toxicologists seek to answer.
In toxicology programs, you take many science and math courses. These include pharmacology, anatomy, and statistics. You also study biochemistry, physiology, and genetics. Nearly all of your courses will emphasize laboratory research. In addition, you can specialize in one disease or in a group of disease. You could focus on an area such as substance abuse, chemotherapy, or neuropharmacology (how drugs affect the brain).
A few schools offer a bachelor's degree in toxicology. However, most people become toxicologists by going to graduate school. About 60 colleges and universities offer master's and doctoral degrees in toxicology. Often, they are offered through the pharmacy program or through medical schools. Typically graduate degrees take two to five years after you finish your bachelor's degree.
Most toxicologists work as researchers and policy analysts. You can study new drug therapies at a pharmaceutical company; for example, you might study new chemotherapy techniques that are less harmful to the patient. You can also teach at medical, nursing, or veterinary schools. In addition, you can work for government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration or the National Institutes of Health. You may even focus on reducing toxins in the natural environment.