27 January 2016

A unique module taught by scientists from Unilever transformed a prizewinning students understanding of his subject, and set him on his chosen career path.

Stefan Schade moved from Germany to Lancaster after becoming fascinated by toxicology - the underlying principles of how chemicals adversely affect living organisms.

“As an undergraduate I had become very interested in the biochemical part of toxicology, how chemicals interact at a cellular level and how that relates to the whole organisms and populations,” Stefan explains.

“But in Germany it was very hard to find programmes that did toxicology at postgraduate level. In the UK there are several and Lancaster University seemed to offer the best opportunity. It’s one of the top ten universities in the UK.”

Stefan has had no reason to regret his choice. He has now graduated with a MSc in Environmental and Biochemical Toxicology, winning a Lancaster University Chancellor’s Award as one of the top performing postgraduate students in his year.

An industrial perspective

The pivotal moment for Stefan was during a module on “Safety and Environmental Impact Assessment: An Industrial Perspective’, led by Professor Paul Carmichael, a senior toxicologist from multinational company Unilever, who is a Professor in Practice at Lancaster Environment Centre

“The module introduced me to a paradigm shift that is currently emerging in toxicology on a global scale, which at the time I wasn’t aware of: a very novel and valuable approach which hasn’t yet percolated into the research community.”

This new approach was to focus on understanding toxicology at a systems level, relying on investigating toxicological mechanisms using laboratory and computational approaches instead of animals to test the effects of chemicals on living organisms.

“It is about understanding how chemicals interact with organisms at a fundamental level - the root causes of toxicity - rather than merely assessing the adverse symptoms they cause. The new testing approaches are also way more efficient and not as expensive as animal testing.”

The module inspired Stefan’s choice of dissertation topic: using cutting-edge biospectropscopy laboratory techniques to investigate manifestations of genome damage.  Now he’s continuing his interest in the area through a PhD on mechanistic toxicology at the University of Birmingham, part funded by Unilever.

Great supervision within a friendly community

“I enjoyed my time at Lancaster very much. I liked that our lecturers interest in the syllabus was not only theoretical, but they were very involved in practically applying their research and exploring new technologies. I received great supervision from Professor Frank Martin.

“There was a very nice community amongst students, especially within the Environment Centre.”

Winning the Chancellor’s Award and being recognised at the graduation ceremony was a very special moment for Stefan.

“In Germany we don’t have graduation ceremonies like you do in the UK, so for me it was a very big thing and I felt very proud of the work that I had done and the attention it was paid.

Stefan hopes to remain in toxicology research when he has completed his PhD, either in industry or in an independent research institute.