Michael J. Olson, Ph.D., Fellow ATS, is a Principal Toxicologist for SafeBridge Consultants, Inc. and has over 35 years of experience participating in and directing programs for occupational toxicology, chemical hazard evaluation and communication, and risk assessment. Dr. Olson earned his Ph.D. in Toxicology from the University of Arkansas – Medical Sciences while working at the National Center for Toxicological Research, US FDA. He then served as an NIEHS NRSA Postdoctoral Fellow under the guidance of Dr. Ronald G. Thurman at University of North Carolina School of Medicine. His employment history includes service to General Motors Research Labs., GlaxoSmithKline and its predecessor companies, and SafeBridge Consultants, Inc. Dr. Olson has served as an elected and appointed officer in The Society of Toxicology and other professional societies, on scientific specialty journal editorial boards, as a Visiting Scientist to EPA, and as an adjunct faculty member.
What was your first job after your post-doc?
My first job after my time at UNC was in the Biomedical Sciences Department of General Motors (GM) Research Labs. At GM, I was tasked with setting up and running a laboratory focusing on the hepatic and renal effects of high production volume chemicals used in the automotive industry. At the time, GM manufacturing was heavily vertically integrated, so they were very focused on ensuring the chemicals in their wide range of products were safe for both the individuals involved in manufacturing as well as consumers that would use the product. It was a great first job because the laboratory was well funded, I had quite a bit of flexibility in my research, and GM was very supportive of publishing our findings. In the nine years I spent at GM, I was able to publish over 30 peer-reviewed articles and over 40 GM technical publications.
Tell me about your time at Glaxo and GSK.
After nine years at General Motors, I thought it was about time for a career change. I eventually joined Glaxo Inc., a predecessor company of GlaxoSmithKline, as an occupational toxicologist. At Glaxo, I focused on health hazard evaluation and work practice policies for mitigation of worker exposure to raw materials, synthetic intermediates and active pharmaceutical substances. I was promoted to Manager of Corporate Occupational Toxicology at the time of the Glaxo-Burroughs Wellcome merger (forming GW), and then investigated and managed workplace chemical safety issues for GW R&D. In 2001, I was promoted to Director of Occupational Toxicology in the Environment, Health, and Safety group at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), where I led workplace hazard identification and communication efforts for various classes of pharmaceuticals for both R&D and manufacturing. Additionally, I managed and developed GSK’s occupational health hazard review process, which focused on research and testing programs involving in vitro and 3Rs testing methods.
So now you’re at SafeBridge Consultants Inc. What is the work like there?
When GSK reduced their corporate footprint in RTP, I knew I wasn’t quite ready to retire. During my time at GSK, I was fortunate to be affiliated with a group known as the Occupational Toxicology Roundtable, an informal organization that focuses on aspects of occupational toxicology in the pharmaceutical industry. Through my interactions with other scientists at OTR meetings, SOT and other groups I knew several of the Principals of SafeBridge Consultants Inc., and was fortunate to be hired by SafeBridge as Senior Manager of Environmental Health Services and was then promoted to Principal Toxicologist. Safebridge Consultants Inc. is a relatively small consulting firm that specializes in occupational and product stewardship in the pharmaceutical industry, so my previous experience made it a great fit. The firm has headquarters in both Mountain View, CA and Manhattan, NY, but I head up SafeBridge operations in the Southeast, so am based in RTP.
At SafeBridge, our clients range from small pharma and biotech startups all the way up to large pharmaceutical companies, and we work on quite a wide range of projects. At SafeBridge, my work primarily focuses on risk assessment for new and existing pharma products, and evaluation of the unique risks of pharmaceutical R&D and manufacturing.
I’ve heard quite a bit about the DABT, but I’d love to learn about your experience as an ATS Fellow. Has that been valuable for you in your career? How does it differ from DABT?
Both certifications definitely have major benefits, especially when it comes to the private sector. The Diplomate of the Board of Toxicology (DABT) certification is an accreditation that is typically received relatively early on in the career of toxicologists, usually around 3 – 5 years after award of a Ph.D. On the other hand, becoming a Fellow of the Academy of Toxicological Sciences (ATS) is a certification that is typically received mid-career. This is likely because fellowship in ATS is a certification that is based on contributions to the field of Toxicology in a variety of areas, which usually requires quite a bit of time to build up. For example, becoming an ATS fellow requires significant contributions to the field via professional service, publication, faculty appointments and teaching, oral and other presentations, and mentoring. I think they both can be very useful for toxicologists, especially those in the private and governmental service sectors. While it’s not absolutely necessary, toxicology consultants, those in pharma and consumer products industries, other business sectors, and government employment will find it useful to be accredited as it is a recognized way to demonstrate broad-based knowledge in toxicology.
Lastly, any advice for current graduate students or post-docs that are interested in going into your field?
In addition to focusing on your research, your graduate school and postdoc years are also a great time to work on other very important skills that will be useful in any career. The ability to convey your research to both a technical as well as a general audience is exceptionally valuable in any field, but it is especially important in the consulting world. So, I highly recommend graduate students and postdocs work on their public speaking and writing abilities. Clearly it’s also really important to find topics and approaches for your research that allow you to participate in areas where there are challenges and the underlying science is developing.
Also, in terms of identifying an ideal first job after graduate school, my advice for current trainees would be to look for a job under a great mentor, and in an organization that allows you to publish. Finding a position that gives you the ability to publish is especially important for early-career scientists because it allows you to highlight your contributions to the field, which will be important later in your career. Many trainees think that industry positions won’t allow you to publish, which oftentimes isn’t the case.