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Society of Toxicology Recognizes Texas A&M Graduate and Postdoctoral Students

Posted February 28, 2017


From left: Yu Syuan Luo, Fabian Grimm, Xi Li, and Joseph Cichocki

The Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) is home to more than veterinary medicine and a teaching hospital. For postdoctoral colleagues Xi Li, Joseph Cichocki, Fabian Grimm, and graduate students Yu-Syuan Luo and Abhishek Venkatratnam, the CVM is also a place for research to improve human health.

Mentored by two prominent toxicologists, Drs. Stephen Safe and Ivan Rusyn, these trainees are working to find more effective therapeutics for human disease and advance the scientific basis for decisions that protect the public from hazardous environmental chemicals.

Toxicology—the study of effects of chemical, biological, or physical agents on living organisms and the ecosystem—is an important factor in keeping people, animals, and the environment safe.

SOT Membership

Li, Cichocki, Grimm, Luo, and Venkatratnam are all members of the Society of Toxicology (SOT), a professional and scholarly organization that unites toxicologists in the United States and abroad. Founded in 1961, the SOT has grown from 108 members in its first year to over 7,000 members today. The society’s mission is to create a safer and healthier world by increasing the impact of toxicology.

SOT brings toxicologists together from all over the world through an annual meeting. Members who attend the meeting are given the opportunity to present their research, network with other SOT members, and learn about advances in the field from their colleagues.

“I think the SOT meeting is a good chance to find people willing to collaborate with you on your research,” Li said. “If people are interested in your work, they will approach you, talk to you, and collaborate with you. SOT is a tremendously big meeting and there are many opportunities.”

Other learning opportunities include symposia, workshops, poster sessions, and continuing education programs.

“The SOT meeting offers a great opportunity for me to practice communication and public speaking skills,” Luo said. “I need this opportunity to practice presenting my research in a way both scientists and the public can understand.”

Grimm and Venkatratnam added that the SOT meeting has allowed them to receive feedback about their research and learn about the most recent developments in toxicology. This opportunity has helped both increase their network within the toxicology community and stay updated on progress within their field of research.

“The SOT meeting is a fantastic way to build your network,” Grimm said. “During the meetings you can present your research and get feedback from experts.”

Venkatratnam added, “The SOT meetings help me keep track of progress relevant to my research, as well as overall trends in the field.”

Meaningful Mentorship

This year, these trainees have been awarded one or more honors from the SOT and will receive these awards at the annual meeting in March in Baltimore. Though they are incredibly talented and intelligent, each of them credited their mentors for supporting them and encouraging them to continue their research and apply for SOT awards.

Li, who has been mentored by Safe in a cancer research lab since 2008, said, “Dr. Safe is supportive of my research and he's a great mentor. Whenever I want to apply for an award, he's always willing to support me.”

Cichocki, Luo, Grimm, and Venkatratnam, all mentored by Rusyn in a toxicology lab, appreciate Rusyn and his encouraging attitude.

“Dr. Rusyn is extremely supportive of career development and applying for awards, fellowships, and other grants,” Cichocki said. “He's also really supportive of us trying to communicate with as many people as possible so our research gets exposure.”

Grimm added, “If you want to apply for something, regardless of how busy Dr. Rusyn is, he will make it happen. He also lets his trainees take the lead on their research projects and gets them in touch with the right people.”

Each of these trainees’ impacts is rightfully recognized with awards from the SOT that help fund their research and travel expenses to attend the annual SOT meeting.

The awards each trainee is receiving this year are as follows:

Student (doctoral)

Yu Syuan Luo

  • SOT Graduate Student Travel Support Award (2017)

Abhishek Venkatratnam

  • SOT Risk Assessment Specialty Section Perry J.  Gehring Best Graduate Student Abstract Award (2017)


Joseph Cichocki, Ph.D.

  • Texas A&M Division of Research Postdoctoral Scholar Travel Award (2016)
  • SOT Regulatory and Safety Evaluation Specialty Section travel award (2017)
  • SOT Risk Assessment Specialty Section Trainee Award (2017)
  • SOT Gabriel L. Plaa Education Award to postdoctoral trainee finalist (2017)

Fabian Grimm, Ph.D.

  • Syngenta Fellowship Award in Human Health Applications of New Technologies (2017)
  • Best Postdoctoral Publication Award from Society of Toxicology for publication “A chemical–biological similarity-based grouping of complex substances as a prototype approach for evaluating chemical alternatives” (2017)
  • SOT Risk Assessment Specialty Section Perry J.  Gehring Best Postdoctoral Fellow Abstract Award (2017)
  • SOT In Vitro and Alternative Methods Specialty Section (IVAM) Postdoctoral Travel Award (2017)

XI Li, Ph.D.

  • Society of Toxicology Carcinogenesis Specialty Section Postdoctoral Fellowship Award

“The research base at the CVM has been historically strong and is growing even faster now,” Safe said. “Our trainees are the beneficiaries of a conducive environment and the investment that the college is making in the next generation of researchers is a major reason we can attract and nurture talent.”


Li, who is studying cancer biology, is focusing his research on developing small molecules, specifically diindolylmethane (DIM) analogs, for cancer therapy.

“DIM is a naturally occurring compound from cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and kale,” Li said. “We have been testing DIM in cancer cell cells in mice for tumor growth inhibition.”

Through his research, Li could potentially help millions of cancer patients.

“Clinical statistics and health surveys show that a diet high in cruciferous vegetables can greatly reduce cancer risk in humans,” Li said. “That was one of the reasons we initiated our study in these vegetables. By taking the DIM molecules and chemically modifying them to change their naturally occurring state, these new compounds, or analogs, become potent enough to potentially help treat cancer.”

Li’s goal is to create a treatment for cancer using DIM analogs that is less toxic to humans than current chemotherapy treatments.

In addition, these new DIM-derived compounds also can be combined with other anticancer agents to enhance effectiveness. More importantly, these compounds can target a specific receptor and may be particularly effective in cancer patients expressing this receptor.

“For cancer treatment in the future I think this could be a really good option,” Li said.

Cichocki, Luo, Venkatratnam, and Grimm are studying how different individuals respond to environmental chemicals, an important variable in environmental health protection. Information on inter-individual variability and on mechanisms of toxicity will improve decision-making about potential hazards from exposure to environmental chemicals and drugs.

Through collaboration and branching out on their own projects and studies, the four hope to make the regulatory process in environmental health more accurate by creating more effective ways to test chemicals and toxins. One of the most common ways to determine if a chemical is safe for human use is animal testing. However, animal testing is a slow process and is even illegal in some instances.

“Animal testing to decide whether or not a chemical has to be regulated is relatively slow,” Grimm said. “There is a dire need for alternatives that can replace animal testing. We are trying to find solutions through our research for some of the key challenges in that field.”

Grimm and Cichocki have worked in Rusyn’s lab since 2014 and have similar end goals for their research. However, they are approaching their research differently. Grimm is focusing on the development of in vitro technologies, such as blood cells derived from multiple individuals that can be reprogrammed to functional cells that represent liver, heart, and other organs. Cichocki is working on modeling human disease in mice so he can better understand the mechanisms of disease and potential susceptibility to toxic chemicals.

Luo, who joined Rusyn’s lab to work on his doctoral degree in toxicology, is focusing on developing sensitive methods to test how environmental toxicants are converted to reactive molecules inside the human body. These methods will provide scientific information that is critical for understanding which organs may be harmed by chemical exposure.

Venkatratnam also joined Rusyn’s lab to work on his doctoral degree in environmental sciences and engineering. Using genetic mapping tools, Venkatratnam is identifying regions of DNA that may by driving specific responses from exposure to chemical solvents—chemicals that are used for commercial and industrial purposes, such as degreasers, paint thinners, and cleaning solutions. These responses could lead to adverse effects in humans, such as cancer development.

Continuing Support

Though research can be challenging, the five trainees are excelling in their field. With the support of the SOT, the CVM, and especially their mentors, these trainees will continue making positive advancements in human health.

“It is rewarding to see young scientists succeed and be recognized for the amazing work they are doing,” Rusyn said. “Their awards are a major honor and are well deserved.”


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Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; ; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)

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