Derik Haggard is an NIEHS training grant PhD candidate in Robyn Tanguay'slaboratory. In addition to his research, Derik has participated in EHSC outreach events, including the 2012 daVinci Days EHSC Sun Booth.
When did you decide to become a scientist? I realized I wanted to be a scientist in high school. My high school didn’t actually have a strong biology program, so I started reading the textbook on my own to learn more. I became fascinated by photosynthesis, and was amazed at how scientists had been able to define the photosynthetic pathway through experimentation. As a freshman in college, I deliberately searched out a laboratory research experience and was fortunate enough to be accepted to work in a heavy metals toxicology and cellular biology lab. I spent almost my entire college career working there and that experience also earned me three summer internships, an honors thesis, and attendance at multiple conferences. I actually got to go to PANWAT at Oregon State in 2008, three years before I started my graduate degree!
Why did you choose Oregon State University to pursue your PhD? My college research experience introduced me to the field of toxicology, and so I knew I wanted to be a toxicologist. However, toxicology is a very diverse field and because there are so many different research areas and opportunities, I knew I needed to find my niche. Things beame clearer when one of my college classes assigned “Our Stolen Future” by Theo Colburn. Once I read that book, I decided to look into the more specific field of reproductive toxicology. When I started looking at graduate schools, I narrowed my search by schools with a toxicology program that had research labs working in the field of reproductive toxicology. Ultimately I chose Oregon State because there were so many options; I was interested in the Tanguay lab, the Kerkvliet lab and the Stubblefield lab. With that many choices, I knew it would be a strong environment. Plus, I’m a climber, and Oregon is a great place for climbing!
Research focus: There are an overwhelming number of chemicals being produced and used in the United States with unknown toxicities. The safety of a vast majority of these chemicals is unknown. Using today’s regulatory standards, it would be impossible to test them all. My research is focused on tackling this national problem by developing and using new methods to determine the toxicity of chemicals in a way that is fast, reliable, and inexpensive. Our lab uses the zebrafish model to conduct our research. Using this fast model, we are able to test thousands of chemicals in a short amount of time at little cost. Currently, I am testing over 1000 chemicals that are a part of the Environmental Protection Agency ToxCast™ program. This research will help federal agencies like the EPA work out new ways to test the safety of chemicals. Our results will also be used to predict the toxicity of chemicals based on chemical structure, enabling us to focus more in-depth safety testing on classes of chemicals that pose an immediate threat to human health.
What is a typical day for you? Right now my day mostly consists of me, my computer, and my computer programs. I am combing through a lot of RNAseq data, running different statistical programs…basically I am data mining. Coffee is involved.
My frame has shifted since coming to Oregon State and I’m moving a lot more towards computational toxicology with my research, and I think that is where my field is heading. If we can use predictive models and high-throughput approaches to identify chemicals that might be toxic, we can eliminate a lot of laborious, expensive testing in animal and cell models. Ultimately though, bioinformatics can only take you so far before you need to validate your results in the lab. Lab work and computer work sort of wax and wane as you go through a project.
What were some of the benefits of being an NIEHS training grant recipient? I think the biggest, most obvious benefit, are the laboratory rotations you get to do your first year. This lets you experience multiple research options and different laboratories. It gives you the choice, and it gives you an objective viewpoint. You get to try out a lab for three months, and then you get to try out a different lab. I think that’s very valuable. The grant also gives you some funding for lab supplies and equipment, which is incredibly helpful. Maybe one of the less obvious benefits is the community it introduces you to. We have a very unique community, which is also a reflection of the toxicology field; toxicology is so diverse, and covers so many different research programs.
What advice do you have for new students?
1) Keep an open mind when you are evaluating graduate programs. I came in wanting to study reproductive toxicology, and that is what I am pursuing (although computational toxicology puts a new spin on things), but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes you don’t know what you want to do until you try it out.
2) Spend time with the students! I know everyone says this, but it really is true. You need to get their two cents on the lab dynamic. The science might be great, but if the environment is terrible, it will be a difficult 5-6 years. I guess this just speaks to how important the opportunity to rotate is.
3) Be involved with your department and your professional society. Ultimately, networking is how research moves forward. Being a graduate student isn’t just about going to classes and doing your research. Some of these events can be fun; I helped out at the 2012 EHSC daVinci Days, helping kids make bracelets out of UV-reactive beads to teach about Vitamin D formation.