October 2016

Gillian Backus, PhD


Dr. Gillian Backus graduated in 2006 and conducted her dissertation research on how changes in immunomodulatory genes affect pulmonary responses to ozone at the NIEHS. She was a fellow at the National Academies of Science and a toxicologist at EPA before transitioning to full-time teaching. Dr. Backus is now full-time faculty at one of the largest community colleges in the US, Northern Virginia Community College, in the biology department.

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

I started off as a high school biology teacher. I had been wanting to go to grad school, mostly to improve my critical thinking skills and to challenge myself intellectually. My reason for choosing toxicology was really a merging of two things: first, growing up in New Hampshire, I did a lot of hiking in the mountains and was seeing the haze and smog from the cities coming into the mountains. Second, I noticed that a quite a number of my students had inhalers and I wondered: is there a connection between air quality in the area and asthma rates? My interest in understanding the interactions between the environmental side and the health side led me to toxicology, in hopes that maybe I could help people understand that the way we take care of the earth does have an impact on our health.

What do you do now?

I am a professor in the biology department. My bread and butter is the Bio 101 Introductory course. I also teach courses in anatomy and physiology, regulatory biology, and regulatory affairs. As a community college, we don’t have TAs. We do all the teaching, all the preparation work, and all the grading. Here, you have PhD level professors for both the lecture course and the lab course.

I like the academic freedom, and the creativity that comes with the job. I am always trying new things with my courses, different approaches to certain subjects, different pedagogical techniques. The field of education is always changing, there’s always something new to try in the classroom!

How did you get there?

After graduation, I was kind of at a loss. I knew I didn’t want to do a postdoc, but my advisor really wanted me to pursue further training so I applied to a few. Meanwhile, while waiting to hear back from them, I found out about a fellowship in Science and Technology Policy at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.. Fellows are placed in various offices (called “Boards”) in each of the three national academies of Science. We saw science from all different perspectives. We met with the three presidents of the Academies, were introduced to numerous non-profits, and were able to go to Congress and sit in on the scientific committee/advisory meetings. It was a free ticket to the science policy world in Washington.

My placement was in the Koshland Science Museum of the National Academies and I loved it. I helped the museum develop curriculum materials to accompany their exhibits for field trips. My time in DC opened a world of public science education and I realized I wanted to do something in promoting public understanding of science.

I eventually did get a post doc at the EPA which morphed into a full time position and I stayed there for three years. There, I did chemical risk assessment in the IRIS program. Our office was composed entirely of PhDs; each chemical manager everyone had their pet chemical or chemicals to work on. Our work focused on reviewing the literature, identifying key studies, and using those key studies to, identify NOAELs, and drafting risk assessment documents.. It kept me really close to the science policy line which was nice. I met lots of fantastic, very smart, very motivated scientists working there. George Bush was in the White House at the time so it was an interesting time to be there and see what these scientists were trying to accomplish and the obstacles they encountered.

I started adjuncting at Northern Virginia Community College on Saturdays, and I totally fell in love. When a position opened, I needed to make a big decision; taking the job would be a full commitment to teaching. But by then, I knew that teaching was definitely where I wanted to go

Where do you see yourself in the future? What are your next steps?

I am perfectly happy where I am. Since I’ve started teaching full-time, I’ve risen pretty quickly. The question at my level now is if I would want to head into administration or apply for a dean position or go to teach at a 4-year school. It has always been my dream to teach at a small, liberal arts college, but for now I’m enjoying it here.

Where do you see the future of undergraduate education?

Small liberal arts colleges are now becoming less teaching-focused and trying to get into research. It’s hard doing research without the support of a large research university. Some schools are now hiring research faculty and teaching faculty because they’ve realized that research faculty may not like teaching and could actually turn off students from certain subjects. NCSU and Elon are some schools starting to do this.

What I’d like to see is the end of large lecture classes, more interdisciplinary lectures, and encouragement of cross faculty collaboration. We are facing a lot of issues that need to be tackled from many perspectives and college is the place to start teaching students how to do that.

Apart from the degree, what was the most valuable skill/lesson you gained from your time at UNC?

I would say, the interdisciplinary nature of the Tox program was really great. I definitely treasured the opportunity to work at NIEHS and to do science for 6 years of my life at an intense level. The greatest skill the PhD gives you is the ability to think. It is almost intangible sometimes, but when you are trying to solve problems, that’s when you Gillirealize the results of your training.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I’m a parent! I enjoy being outdoors and cooking meals with my vegetable share. I also sing in a community choir. Another perk of being a professor is having the summers off!

Dr. Backus can be reached at .

Interviewed by Mimi Huang