Toxicology helps us understand the harmful effects of chemicals on living organisms: pesticides in the food we eat, pollutants in air, chemicals in water, toxic dump sites. Which chemicals are really dangerous? How much does it take to cause harm? What are the effects of a particular chemical?
The job involves isolating and identifying toxins or radiation and their harmful effects; conducting laboratory experiments; analysing and evaluating data; researching scientific literature; carrying out risk analyses, assessing toxicity and creating safety profiles; writing reports and papers and presenting findings; developing models to predict the long-term effect of chemicals within the environment; advising on the safe handling of toxic substances and radiation and liaising with regulatory bodies.
Forensic toxicologists deal mainly with medico-legal aspects of drugs and poisons, their main responsibilities are to establish and explain the circumstances of legal cases where drugs or other chemicals are implicated. These can range from ‘drink driving’ cases to murder investigations where deliberate or accidental poisoning is suspected. Forensic toxicologists must be able to isolate, identify and quantify toxic substances in biological materials. This involves using modern analytical procedures, from immunoassays to identify groups of drugs to sophisticated chromatographic and spectrometric assays to measure minute amounts of drugs - often in tiny biological samples. They may be called by the Courts as an ‘expert witness’ to identify a drug, to say how much was found, when the drug entered the body, and how.
You need a good background in chemistry and some biology, to be organised and methodical, problem-solving skills, the ability to work well in multidisciplinary teams, to collect and analyse large amounts of data from experiments, a proactive approach to work and ability to write reports and communicate results effectively.
Pharmacology is related to toxicology and involves study of the effects of drugs and chemical compounds on humans and animals. Pharmacologists work as part of a team including chemists, biochemists, geneticists, microbiologists, molecular biologists, toxicologists and pharmacists. They work in research, development and clinical trials of drugs.
Immunology involves the study of the immune system (a body's defensive systems against disease). Viruses, bacteria and parasites are constantly attacking the body, and can lead to serious illness. It also involves investigating malfunctions of the immune system in autoimmune diseases, hypersensitivities, immune deficiency and transplant rejection).
Clinical Immunology involves the diagnosis and treatment of patients with allergy (e.g. to pollen), immunodeficiency, autoimmune diseases and also contributes to the success of organ transplantation.
Laboratory immunology involves analysing blood samples, running PCR gels, and looking at tissue sections under a fluorescence microscope. In the past immunologists spent most of their time in a laboratory, but now the broad and complex nature of the immune system means they adopt a multidisciplinary approach to their work.
- Most immunologists have a Life Science degree such as Biomedical Science, Biology, Microbiology or Biochemistry.
- Scientific curiosity: keeping up to date with advances in science
- Ability to work as part of a team
- Good oral and written communication skills
- Ability to use on-line databases and familiarity with computers
- Attention to detail
Toxicologists work in the Chemical, Consumer Products, Pharmaceutical and Other Industries, Universities, Government Agencies and Laboratories. Clinical toxicology is carried out in larger hospitals, as well as NHS regional toxicology units. Environmental toxicologists work on environmental hazard assessment in government, industry and consultancy. Forensic Toxicologists work in the Forensic Science Service, private forensic labs and hospital departments of forensic medicine (see our forensic science careers page)
Other employers include:
- MRC Toxicology Unit delivers field-changing mechanistic insights into toxicology and disease. Have 150 staff researching into various aspects of toxicity and its effects on health. Offer fellowships and PhD studentships.
- The Health and Safety Executive
- Ministry of Defence
- The Environment Agency
- Medical Research Council
- Water companies
Consulting laboratories/private research organisations
- Alere toxicology recruit graduates for research, lab roles, report writing and many other areas
- Covance one of the world's largest drug development services companies
- Huntingdon Life Sciences product development company - work with a wide variety of products, including Pharmaceuticals, Agrochemicals, Industrial Chemicals, Veterinary Products, Foods and Flavourings, to help manufacturers develop safer products for the market.
- BIBRA International UK research organisation - Healthcare and Safety serving all industrial sectors but particularly pharmaceutical and food.
- WRc Group technology-based consultancy providing services to the water, wastewater and environmental industries
Pharmacologists are employed by pharmaceutical companies, universities, chemical, food and drink, household goods and cosmetics manufacturers, hospitals and Public Health England, and government or charity-funded research institutes such as the Institute of Cancer Research
Where are they employed?
- Hospitals. NHS Immunologists are either qualified doctors specialising in the study of diseases (pathology) or the study of allergies or laboratory scientists: as a clinical scientist or biomedical scientist you help in the analysis, diagnosis and treatment of conditions with an immunological basis.
- Pharmaceutical companies. Work in a team with other scientists to develop new medical products and therapies. They may also be involved in management and commercial activities.
- Private practice
- Clinical and academic research laboratories,
- Universities. Immunologists work in life science departments conducting research on the immune system and also lecturing.
- Public health bodies.
- Agriculture. Veterinary immunologists research methods of improving animal healthcare by preventing disease, and providing treatment for those animals suffering from infections and other immunological conditions.
- Environmental monitoring.
- Clinical Research Associate setting up clinical trials for new medicines
Find out more
Taught Postgraduate Courses in Immunology
- MSc Immunology of Infectious Diseases - London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
- MSc Immunology - Imperial College London
- MSc Molecular and Cellular Immunology - University of Aberdeen
- MSc Immunology and Immunotherapeutics - University of Nottingham
- MSc Immunology and Allergy - University of Nottingham
- MSc Clinical Immunology - University of Manchester
- Infection and Immunity MSc - University of Liverpool