How grad students developed a toxicology class taught thousands of miles away

By Meghan Chua


There are plenty of teaching opportunities on a large campus like UW–Madison, but one group of grad students has expanded their reach across continents with a newly developed course.

Graduate students in the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Program developed a core curriculum in toxicology, designed for students with varying levels of chemistry knowledge, that recently completed its first run at the University of Sierra Leone.

“I was really excited about the opportunity to design a course,” said graduate student Morgan Walcheck, who researches how factors like a high-fat diet or irregular sleeping schedules may lead to pancreatic cancer.

The group of nine graduate students came together after Alhaji N’Jai, a former postdoc in the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Program who is now a professor at the University of Sierra Leone, visited one of the program’s seminars. He’d already been in touch with the program’s then-director Chris Bradfield about developing a toxicology curriculum for Sierra Leone but needed the manpower to do it.

“As grad students, you have a lot of other things going on and so it was really neat to see how many people were so willing to help,” said graduate student Rachel Wilson. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked so cohesively with that many other people.”

Walcheck said part of the group’s motivation to develop the curriculum was each member’s interest in teaching as part of their career.

To enhance their teaching skills, Wilson connected the group to WISCIENCE, an office that collaborates with faculty, students, and staff to support teaching and public service related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Wilson was a WISCIENCE Scientific Teaching Fellow in 2017. She reconnected with Cara Theisen, WISCIENCE Director of Professional Development in Teaching & Learning, who led a workshop for the students who developed the toxicology course about best practices for teaching.

“We were trying to find a way to get everybody on the same page where we could all create a lesson plan that included all of the same elements so that somebody else, thousands of miles away, could pick it up and know exactly how the course is supposed to progress,” Wilson said.

Each member of the team developed one or two lessons, drawing on their strengths and experiences in their research. Wilson researches the aryl hydrocarbon receptor, a dioxin receptor that leads to toxicity, which is a staple in toxicology courses. She also introduces the fundamentals of mouse models in research based on her knowledge from the lab.

Another member of the group, alumna Molly Morgan, complemented that approach by giving an overview of in vitro lab work. Wilson said this contributed to a broader overview of how chemical compounds create toxicity.

The course was taught as an optional program in the evenings. That didn’t hinder its attendance, as some students drove from the equivalent of Chicago to Madison to get to the University of Sierra Leone.

“Everybody was really excited, especially the grad students,” Walcheck said. “It sounded like they just wanted more and more.”

Group member Fola Arowolo said some staff from the environmental protection agency in Sierra Leone want to take the course to get professional certification.

“We can actually impact people that are in positions to enact policies over there,” Arowolo said.

Arowolo researches toxicants in food that result from cooking methods such as using high heat or deep-frying. He studies how these toxicants lead to chronic diseases, which are increasing worldwide and at even higher rates in developing countries. The food system in Sierra Leone lacks regulations, Arowolo said. Increasing knowledge of health risks can help improve human health worldwide.

This spring, Walcheck, Wilson, and Arowolo plan to travel to Sierra Leone to teach a condensed version of the course geared toward environmental protection professionals. They will be able to see how their course has impacted students, and leave the curriculum at the university to further help learners.

“There are a lot of people that want to have more extensive training in certain areas, so we would like to have those options for them,” Wilson said.

The group also aims to align their curriculum with learning objectives that the Society of Toxicology recently published to guide undergraduate education on the subject. They want to continue creating awareness of toxicology issues to help protect people throughout the world.

Arowolo said they have seen low-cost inventions presented at conferences that could give students ways to test for air quality or other environmental health factors. They would like to integrate these into their curriculum eventually.

“It starts with creating awareness, but it ends with creating change. That’s what we aim to do,” Arowolo said.