February 2017

Alison Harrill, PhD


Dr. Alison Harrill earned a B.S. in Genetic Engineering from Cedar Crest College and completed her doctoral degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008. Under the mentorship of Ivan Rusyn, she investigated the use of diverse mouse populations to predict adverse drug effects, identifying gene variants that predicted susceptibility to acetaminophen toxicity. Alison did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Hamner Institute and continued as a researcher there until transitioning to an assistant professorship at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). She now works at the NIEHS in the National Toxicology Program as a Geneticist, with an adjunct position in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at UNC-Chapel Hill and an appointment to the Graduate School at the UAMS. Alison has earned numerous awards for her research, including SOT’s Best Paper published in Toxicological Sciences award in 2016 and is active in a variety of professional societies and organizations.

What is your story? How did you get interested in toxicology?

When I was in high school, it was the era of Jurassic Park and Dolly the Sheep; there was great enthusiasm for genetics and genetic manipulation. So, I worked toward my bachelor’s degree in genetic engineering and conducted undergraduate research on phylogenetic changes due to bacteriophages in their host. After I graduated, I knew I wanted to work a few years and to do more applied science. I spent two years working for the Army, first in HIV research and then at the Medical Research Institute for Chemical Defense. There, I worked on countermeasures to protect soldiers exposed to chemical agents in the field, by understanding tissue responses defined by transcriptomic changes. I found this research to be quite engaging, combining transcriptomics and genetics with the realm of toxicology, which is very much an applied field of science. When I started searching for graduate programs, I knew a decent amount about genetics but wanted to learn more about toxicology too – which lead me to the Curriculum in Toxicology at UNC.

What did you do after you graduated?

I took on a postdoc at the Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences for a year. Through networking efforts, I was able to secure my own funding through collaborations with pharmaceutical companies and worked as a principal investigator there for a few more years. I then transitioned to an assistant professorship at UAMS. As you may know, there is a large FDA research presence in Arkansas and ample opportunities for collaboration. Together with collaborators at the FDA, I expanded my work in genetic biomarker discovery to facilitate precision medicine. I was also involved in teaching in the UAMS training program in regulatory sciences. This program is targeted to postdocs and it explained how the government uses scientific research to inform regulatory policy decisions.

What do you do now?

My title is “geneticist” at the National Toxicology Program, based in the NIEHS, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. My work bridges the gap between toxicology and genomics. I am in the NTP Biomolecular Screening Branch, and my goal is to identify at what point in toxicity screening we should consider genetic diversity and how population-level data should affect uncertainty estimates around toxicity risk for humans. I came here from my position in Arkansas to fill the need for a population genetics and systems toxicology expert.

What is different about research in academia vs research in government? Is there a difference?

There are some differences, as well as pros and cons to each environment. I’ll just highlight a couple of them here. – professors to balance endeavors toward maintaining an attractive research portfolio, funding acquisition, advising of trainees, service to internal and external committees, and general laboratory management. Government research at various institutions can have different roles; often the research funding is provided by a legislative body. At many government labs, there is a unifying mission and research projects typically must be designed to specifically support the goals of the agency. These projects can take many forms. There is some leeway with regards to experimental approach, but typically researchers must have project ideas vetted and approved within the organization prior to initiation. However, while there is less freedom in the research program itself, there is generally more time to perform research directly owing to lesser funding acquisition and teaching requirements as compared to academia.

Where do you see the future of toxicology?

There are currently efforts underway to “re-think” how toxicology testing should be performed, given the development of many new tools. There are ample opportunities to think outside the box in shaping how toxicology will be conducted in the future. The toxicology testing of the future will merge the most predictive tools of the past with the most promising technologies of the future to better predict hazards and risks.

Any advice to current students/postdocs?

1. Go to meetings and ask at least one question. Doing this lets people know you, gives you more exposure to the field, and helps you become more familiar with the topic.

2. Apply for any award you are qualified for. You never know if you don’t try!

3 . Look for leadership opportunities early on in your career. Be willing to seek service positions in your professional society; even if you don’t do much in the position as a trainee, you can really expand your network and learn how various societies function. Connections you make through these positions can lead to many collateral benefits: making new friends, finding new collaborators, getting invited to give talks, having exposure to the latest and greatest science, and so on!

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I play the electric violin. The bands I’m involved in play country, folk/bluegrass, and rock.

Written by Mimi Huang. Mimi is a 4th year graduate student studying the diabetogenic effects of inorganic arsenic exposure. When she is not having parties with the mice in the animal facility, she is likely rock climbing, inside and outside. She is also a regular contributor and self-proclaimed, in-house toxicologist at the UNC student-run science blog, The Pipettepen.