A two-way street

Just a few days after Vickie Wilson defended her Ph.D. dissertation in toxicology at N.C. State, she was conducting postdoctoral research at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, thanks to a cooperative training agreement that gives scientists-in-training more laboratory experience while providing the EPA with more research muscle.

The agreement is just one of the ways that CALS’ life sciences programs – research and academic – complement the work of government agencies at both the state and federal level.

Dr. Wilson, who graduated in 1999, has worked her way up to branch chief for reproductive toxicology in the EPA’s Toxicology Assessment Division. Based at Research Triangle Park, Wilson studies endocrine-disrupting compounds, which interfere with hormone systems and, as a result, can affect reproductive tissue development and reproductive fitness.

Used in medicines, pesticides, plastics and other products, these chemicals are found throughout the environment. Wilson began studying them while she was a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Gerald LeBlanc, now head of CALS’ Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology. For her dissertation project, she used mice to examine how pesticides affect testosterone clearance and thus the body’s hormone balance.

When she got to the EPA, she shifted her focus from working in model animals to in vitro work designed to isolate androgen and estrogen receptors in various species.

Before Wilson began that work, the EPA’s endocrine screening program was based solely on mammals, and the agency wanted to know more about how endocrine disruptors affect other animals. Such research is important, Wilson says, when it comes to helping the federal agency meet its mandate of protecting human health and the environment.

Today, Wilson uses her expertise in cell-based assays and molecular biology to tackle complicated questions regarding endocrine disruptors, and she considers her ties to N.C. State an asset.

“Sometimes we go to individuals at N.C. State – especially in the toxicology department – for help with [research] methods and protocols,” she says. “If we know, for example, we have to do a particular assay and haven’t done it before, sometimes somebody at N.C. State has done that and they are willing to help us.

“We’ve also had instances where we’ve sent a trainee down to work in somebody’s lab at N.C. State for a week or two – and vice versa,” she adds. “N.C. State has students who come out here sometimes to learn how to do a particular assay. So it’s a two-way street.”

In addition, through the training agreement, N.C. State undergraduate and graduate students can apply to work in some of the agency’s RTP laboratories. The agreement also places N.C. State postdoctoral trainees in EPA laboratories. Wilson now has two people from CALS working in her lab – one is an undergraduate student, and the other is a postdoc.

Wilson says the cooperative training program is mutually beneficial: Having well-prepared students from N.C. State working in EPA labs can help speed the pace of research and, at the same time, gives N.C. State trainees the chance to learn from seasoned scientists.

“For those who are unsure what they want to do in a career, this gives them the opportunity to get in a lab and see what goes on day to day,” Wilson says. And she can say that with confidence, because it’s exactly what happened in her case.“I wouldn’t have this career if it weren’t for N.C. State,” she says. “It was the excellent training and education that I had at N.C. State that got me here.”

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