Dr. Rayetta Henderson obtained her PhD from the Curriculum in Toxicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2005. During her time at UNC, Rayetta studied the teratogenic mechanism of action of perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS)-induced lung toxicity in rodents under the guidance of Dr. John Rogers at the U.S. EPA. Prior to attending UNC, Dr. Henderson attended Eckerd College, where she received her BS in Biology.
Dr. Henderson has previously worked for the consulting firm, Exponent, and the nickel industry trade association, Nickel Producers Environmental Research Association (NiPERA). She is now the assistant leader of the Foods and Consumer Products Practice at ToxStrategies, Inc.
So how did you get into Toxicology?
I always loved science as a kid, but I really didn’t know what toxicology was until I attended graduate school. I went to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for my last two years of high school, where I had an opportunity to work in an immunology lab at the UNC School of Dentistry, which was my first real exposure to research science. I received additional research experience while working at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, NC over two summers (after high school and my freshman year of college). I went to a small liberal arts college, where I majored in biology. While in undergrad, I was fortunate enough to work in a developmental biology lab studying alterations in gene expression in the developing gut of African clawed frogs, as part of a larger research program aimed at understanding left-right asymmetry. In order to understand normal development, we would induce abnormal gene expression, but even then, I really didn’t know the field of toxicology existed. I entered UNC through the PhD Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences (IBMS) umbrella program, the predecessor to BBSP, with an interest in developmental biology. I eventually did a rotation studying teratology in John Rogers’ lab, loved it, and decided that’s what I wanted to do.
How did you find your first position after graduate school?
The beginning of my job search coincided with the annual SOT meeting, so I took advantage of the SOT online “Job Bank” and scheduled quite a few interviews for the week of the conference. However, I was introduced to someone over dinner during the meeting, which ended up serving as a sort of impromptu, informal interview. Even though I was invited for several formal interviews after the meeting, it was this unexpected introduction which eventually led to my first job after graduate school.
Many graduate students are not familiar with the consulting field. How did you become interested in it? Could you tell me a little about the field?
I realized while writing my dissertation that what I liked most about my project was integrating and synthesizing all of the information. In graduate school, I didn’t mind the lab work, but I didn’t love it either. I also knew I wasn’t interested in doing a post-doc, so it made my decision to work in the private sector a little easier. When I first started applying for jobs, I really wasn’t sure whether I wanted to pursue a consulting or industry position, so I interviewed for both. My first position was at a large scientific consulting firm, but I was in a very small group that focused on litigation support for a specific class of industrial chemicals. Subsequently, I spent six years working with NiPERA and the Nickel Institute, and their member companies. This role was very dynamic and introduced me to the regulatory world, which is still of great interest to me. In many ways, working for a trade association is similar to working for a consulting firm, so it was a great fit for me.
I eventually found my way to ToxStrategies, which is the company I am with now. ToxStrategies is a relatively small consulting company but we have an extensive range of expertise and clientele. Right now, I think we have somewhere around 35 employees, but we’re still growing. The company is organized into four practice areas – Health Sciences, Exposure Assessment, Environmental Sciences, and Engineering, Biopharmaceutical and Pharmaceutical, and Foods and Consumer Products. Our clients include industry trade groups, government agencies, consumer product and chemical companies, and even academia. The type of work we do also varies significantly, depending on what the client needs – hazard/risk assessment, regulatory submission, study design/interpretation, etc. One thing I really love about consulting is that no two projects are ever the same!
What skills would you recommend for your particular field that grad students or post docs could work on while they’re still in school?
In consulting, communication is huge. You need to be able to write professionally and concisely, regardless of whether you’re communicating with a client or with a fellow consultant. Consulting is often a collaborative effort that can involve numerous parties, so strong communication skills and ability to work on a team are really important. In addition, it’s important to remember the customer service aspect of consulting. You need to be able to communicate in a professional way with your clients. It’s also important to remember that oftentimes you’ll be communicating with a client who might not necessarily be familiar with toxicology or even science terminology in general, so you need to learn to be proficient in communicating your findings or results to individuals in relatively simplified language. Also, it’s important to understand that clients’ needs may often be driven by regulatory or business-related issues, which means that our focus is usually not on detailed mechanistic research, as you might be accustomed to when working on a dissertation.
Flexibility, time-management, and the ability to re-prioritize are other skills that are key in consulting, but not necessarily ones that are emphasized in graduate school. For instance, you might come in Monday with a specific plan for the week, but by noon, something urgent may have come up on a different project, and you need to be able to reprioritize. This usually means delaying part of another assignment, so this also requires communication with various project managers to ensure that deadlines are still met while ensuring quality deliverables.
These skills aren’t necessarily unique to consulting, but they’re certainly important and something that you learn and improve upon over time.
Any advice for recent CiT graduates or post docs looking for employment?
Networking is really important, but it’s something with which some scientists aren’t particularly comfortable. Also, generally speaking, it’s a good idea to accept interviews, of course unless you are certain you wouldn’t want the job. You can learn so much more about a position and company by participating in an in-person interview, and you may find that it’s a better fit than you originally thought. In addition, you never know who you might meet or what connections you might make through the process. For instance, when my spouse and I were looking to move back to North Carolina, I interviewed at one particular company in the Triangle area. The interview went well, but I ultimately didn’t get the job. However, in true networking fashion, as a result of meeting someone during that interview process, I was later contacted by a different company in the area. I ended working for this organization for six years, and this never would have happened if it weren’t for the connections I made while interviewing!
When not working, what are your biggest hobbies?
You can’t ask a mom of two young kids what her hobbies are! Only kidding, but my 1 and 4 year olds keep me very busy. We love to spend time outside together as a family-whether we’re gardening, hiking, or taking part in water activities. I also just trained for and ran my first half-marathon!