NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Review Toxicologist

Name: Omari Bandele, Ph.D.

Job Title & Company: Review Toxicologist, FDA, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), Office of Food Additive Safety (OFAS), Division of Food Contact Notifications (DFCN)

Location: College Park, MD

How long in current position? 10 months

Postdoc Advisor, IC: Douglas Bell, Ph.D., National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Research Triangle Park, North Carolina

What do you do as a Review Toxicologist?
In our Division, we evaluate the safety of chemicals in food packaging materials that may migrate into food over time or that may contact food during the manufacturing process. Some examples are chemicals used in the manufacturing of potato chip bags, microwave steam bags, meat diapers used in supermarket meat packaging, and antimicrobial washes applied to meats and produce in processing plants. We work to ensure that these food-contact substances are safe for consumers at the estimated level of exposure. As technology advances, food packaging materials are also becoming more sophisticated, and the safety of these chemicals must be evaluated before they reach the market.

Are you working in a lab?
No, as a review toxicologist, I no longer work in the lab. When a company submits a notification to use a food contact substance, we search our internal databases as well as publicly-available databases to gather relevant safety information that will aid us in making a safety assessment. Sometimes, there are chemicals that our office may want additional safety information on and, at that point, we may ask FDA research labs to conduct studies to help fill the toxicology–related knowledge gaps.

What are the most important skills you utilize in your current position?
One of the essential skills for being a good review toxicologist in our Division, is the ability to thoroughly search databases, study reports, and published literature to identify relevant information to make the most informed safety assessment of a food contact substance as well as its impurities. I have developed an even greater appreciation for how important it is to be objective when reviewing this information as our decisions may affect people’s lives.

Writing is another very important skill. The ability to clearly and effectively write up safety assessments with justifications that are supported by the available information is needed for the companies, other reviewers, and the general public to understand the rationale behind our assessment of a chemical.

Do you work as a member of a team?
Yes, for each notification we receive from a company, a four-member team composed of a consumer safety officer and toxicology, chemistry, and environmental reviewers is assigned to evaluate the food contact substance and any of its impurities that may migrate into food or contact food during the manufacturing process.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
It is especially satisfying to know that my efforts have a rather immediate impact on human health. When I walk the aisles of the supermarket, I personally see the contributions our Division makes to protect the public’s health. I used to think that food packaging was composed of inactive materials that only served as a container for my food; however components of food packaging are quite functional, and some of the science involved is really fascinating. This keeps me intrigued. Although I’m no longer at the bench, this job has allowed me the opportunity to remain close to the research and also learn how experimental studies are used to guide regulatory decisions.

This position has also provided a better work-life balance. Lately, we have been having a lot of snow here. In my prior research positions, I would have been trying to figure out a way to get to the lab to salvage my experiments. With this job, as long as I have my computer and access to our network, I can work from anywhere. I really appreciate that part of it.

What has been the hardest part about transitioning into this career?
In the lab, I was constantly moving on most days. One of the biggest adjustments has been getting acclimated to spending a significantly greater portion of the workday at my desk in front of the computer. Another adjustment has been learning to evaluate the results from experimental studies to make regulatory decisions. Also, since I no longer work in the lab, I must make the most educated assessment of a substance based on the available toxicity data. I have had to adjust to the fact that I can’t go into the lab and design an experiment to help me address a question.

What was your job search like?
Prior to my current position, I was an FDA ORISE fellow in CFSAN’s Office of Applied Research and Safety Assessment (OARSA) where I worked on several projects that were of interest to OFAS. This research experience helped me to get my foot in the door and provided me the opportunity to network with people who are now my co-workers. After my NIH post-doc, I knew I wanted to work for the FDA, which really helped me to focus my job search. As an NIH and ORISE fellow, I attended seminars on how to submit a competitive application through the USAjobs.gov website, which provided helpful insight. I also reached out to several FDA employees for informational interviews and to request their assistance in my job search. By networking with FDA employees, I was frequently made aware of upcoming job opportunities for which I should consider.

What are the most important soft skills needed for your position?
In my previous position, I could go most of the day without talking to anyone. Here, I can’t do that. There is a lot of communication back and forth with coworkers to share knowledge regarding various chemicals or how to apply FDA guidance in different scenarios. There is also a lot of brainstorming to discuss how to proceed on issues related to some submitted notifications. You definitely have to be able to work within a team environment and communicate effectively. You also have to be able to write effectively – I do a lot of writing. However, writing up my assessments differs from writing up my research findings in a manuscript. We also must be aware of the phrasing we use in our writing to ensure that it accurately represents the views of the Agency.

Any last bits of advice?
Attending career-related events helped to open my eyes to a new career path away from the bench. I didn’t realize I wanted to work in regulatory science until I attended a career seminar as an NIH post-doc where I heard about the speaker’s career in regulatory review.

I sought out opportunities to do non-technical writing, and I think that really helped me. For example, at the NIH, I wrote for the Environmental Factor and as an ORISE fellow I wrote columns for BioCareers. My current supervisors wanted to see that I could take technical information and write it in more general terms. I would also encourage others to seek experiences outside of the research lab.

Before I got this position, I considered applying to a program that cost about $30,000 and lead to a master’s degree in regulatory science. Now, I am unsure if that would have made me a better applicant because none of my coworkers have this credential; however, some do have a DABT certification.

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