Dr. Stephanie Smith-Roe obtained a B.S. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned her Ph.D. in the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at Oregon State University. During her postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Dr. William Kaufmann at UNC-Chapel Hill, she studied the contributions of DNA replication checkpoint proteins to the preservation of genomic stability. Currently, Dr. Smith-Roe is a genetic toxicologist at the National Toxicology Program, NIEHS. She has also served as the President of the Genetics and Environmental Mutagenesis Society (GEMS), a local scientific society headquartered in the Research Triangle Park, NC.
What is your story? How did you get interested in toxicology?
Early in my undergraduate studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I became fascinated with neuroscience and had the opportunity to conduct neurobehavioral research as a recipient of the Wisconsin-Hilldale Undergraduate/Faculty Research Fellowship. Unfortunately, I became allergic to my test subjects (rats). Due to this setback, I came to understand that while I found brain science to be captivating (and I still do), I had long been concerned about the effects of environmental chemical exposures, an issue that I find to be compelling. Toxicology is a discipline in which there is an exciting intersection between questions about everyday chemical exposures and basic science research. In graduate school, I quickly gravitated towards questions in toxicology related to genomic stability. For my thesis, I investigated whether exposure to cooked meat mutagens (heterocyclic amines) could be an avoidable cancer risk factor for DNA mismatch repair (MMR)-deficient individuals, who have a greatly heightened risk for colorectal cancer and other cancers.
After you finished your Ph.D, what did you look for when selecting a postdoc? What brought you to UNC?
After learning about DNA damage and repair pathways during my graduate studies using a mouse model, I wanted to expand on that knowledge by studying DNA replication and checkpoint activation using cellular and molecular approaches. Joining Dr. Kaufmann’s lab at UNC-Chapel Hill was the perfect opportunity. I did research on newly discovered proteins, Timeless and Timeless-interacting protein (Tipin), that were important for coordinating helicase and polymerase functions during replication of atypical and damaged DNA templates. These proteins also contributed to cell cycle checkpoint signaling in response to DNA damage.
What was the most valuable skill/lesson you gained from your time at UNC?
At UNC-Chapel Hill, my advisor was a highly interactive researcher, and so I learned about the power of collaboration. Collaboration gives one the opportunity think about problems from different points of view, to broaden one’s working knowledge of various approaches in the field, and to develop mutually beneficial relationships that can last throughout one’s career. Combining knowledge, expertise, and skill among laboratories can dramatically increase the impact of experimental findings.
What do you do now?
I am a genetic toxicologist in the Biomolecular Screening Branch at the National Toxicology Program. The interagency program was established in 1978 and is headquartered at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of NIH. Chemicals are nominated to the NTP for a variety of toxicological assessments, including the 2-year rodent cancer bioassay, for the purpose of hazard identification. I see the NTP as a team science endeavor. I contribute by helping to manage a multimillion-dollar contract for the genetic toxicity testing of chemicals being assessed by the Program. I’m also involved in the Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century (Tox21) initiative, particularly with regard to Tox21 DNA damage assay data analysis and interpretation. Occasionally, I have the opportunity to develop a more in-depth exploration of mechanism of action that potentially could help inform risk analysis. One example has been our finding that black cohosh extract, a botanical product, is genotoxic in animals and in cultured human cells. Altogether, this information is made publically available through various NTP reporting mechanisms and peer-reviewed journal publications.
I also actively participate in local and national societies dedicated to research and issues surrounding genomic health. I have had a wonderful experience serving as President-Elect and President of the Genetics and Environmental Mutagenesis Society (www.gems-nc.org), which is headquartered in the Research Triangle Park. I’ve also been very actively involved with the Environmental Mutagenesis and Genomics Society (https://www.emgs-us.org), which is dedicated to understanding the causes and consequences of damage to the genome to support efforts to ensure a healthy, sustainable environment for future generations.
How did you get there?
The NTP seemed like the perfect place to contribute to a variety of significant public health concerns in a highly collaborative environment. Having trained at UNC-Chapel Hill, I also had a great appreciation for the vibrant and diverse scientific community of the Research Triangle Park. Opportunities abound to engage with scientists across many disciplines as well as to interact with the public. This sort of cross-pollination leads to creative insights and endeavors. It’s a very exciting and energizing place to be a scientist!
Where do you see the future of toxicology?
As a graduate student in a toxicology program, when I presented data on effects that were observed in mice, I would often receive the following comment at seminars: “That’s great, but mice aren’t people.” I see toxicology as moving away from animal models and towards technologies that allow us to better understand how chemical exposures affect human tissues, such as 3D organoid systems, that can be further integrated into microfluidic “human-on-a-chip” systems. The field is also adopting approaches that help researchers to better understand how genetic diversity modulates responses to chemical exposures. The Tox21 initiative is heavily vested in such approaches that allow rapid prioritization of chemicals for further testing, and that may allow us to better predict whether a chemical could produce adverse effects in humans.
Any advice to current students/postdocs?
The training process is a holistic experience. In addition to scientific training, take advantage of the resources that you have around you to develop professionally. Trainees at UNC-Chapel Hill have access to outstanding resources, such as the Office of Graduate Education and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. An online resource that I would recommend is VITAE. They have created a researcher development framework that describes an integrated perspective of “the knowledge, behavior, and attributes of successful researchers.” It is crucial to develop effective networking skills. And I know that this might sound like the hardest thing to do when in the midst of intensive training, but make sure to take care of your self and have some fun!
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I’m driven by curiosity and I love to learn, primarily through eclectic reading habits and trying new things. My creative outlets include oil painting and working at the (kitchen) bench to create challenging baking projects.