Ines' PhD studies are about side effects of drugs and how they may be predicted using bioinformatics

Name: Ines Smit
Based: Cambridge, UK.
Current role: PhD student at the University of Cambridge, UK
Year of graduation: 2014

What did you study as an undergraduate (bachelor)?

BSc Liberal Arts & Sciences, theme health & well-being

Why did you choose the Master programme in Toxicology?

There were only a few toxicology-focused masters in Europe when I was applying and I was keen to do a masters that would focus specifically on toxicology. Various other programmes in Europe are about eco-toxicology, whereas I was interested in human health, which is the focus of Karolinska's toxicology programme.

Because my bachelor was very broad, I also liked that Karolinska's toxicology programme is two years, so that I could maximise my learning. I was also interested in the taught courses that form the basis of the programme, so that I could learn more before starting a research internship.

Where did you conduct your MSc thesis and what was it about?

I did my project with Prof. Roland Grafström and Assistant Prof. Pekka Kohonen. I chose to do a computational project instead of a lab-based project because I was interested in the developments in-silico toxicology. During my project, I helped to extract gene expression signatures of head and neck cancer from publications. We assembled these gene signatures in a Wiki-based tool for browsing and investigation. During the project, I started learning the statistical programming language R and learned about technologies used for profiling gene expression, also called transcriptomics.

Looking back on your time at KI and the Master programme in Toxicology, what is the most valuable thing that you learned?

It has been very valuable to learn how various types of chemicals are tested for safety. Not only did we learn about how animal and in vitro studies are conducted and the types of data collected, we also learned how these findings are used in a regulatory context. Understanding of toxicity testing helped me in my first job after graduation, in which I extracted toxicity findings from studies for a public database.

Currently in my PhD research I'm studying side effects of drugs. Since pharmacokinetics can be a determining factor in the cause of side effects, I'm relying on the basics of pharmacokinetics that I learned during the toxicology programme.

It has also been very valuable to learn about the possible limitations of safety studies and their undertainties. This made me appreciate the complexity of how toxicology findings are used in society, for example for the regulation of chemicals in consumer products. For example, we learned about chemicals that may have endocrine-disrupting effects and important factors in how these effects are studied, such as dose and choice of endpoint. Learning about these factors provided me with an understanding of why there may be uncertainty about certain chemicals and why their regulation may be complex.

The programme provided me with an understanding of the human body's detoxicification mechanisms, which is essential for understanding the effects of a wide range of chemicals on the human body, such as drug side-effects or potential carcinogenic effects of chemicals.

Where are you and what are you doing now?

I'm currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, UK. My research is about side effects of drugs and how they may be predicted using bioinformatics. Before starting the PhD, I spent two years working at a public database called ChEMBL for which I helped extract and standardise pharmacokinetics and toxicity information.

What made you decide on this career?

Given the large number of chemicals that modern society uses and the difficulty in predicting toxicity using computational models, there is a great need to advance in-silico toxicology. This sparked my interest and I tried to move into this field.

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