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Careers in Science

Donald E. Tillitt
Environmental Toxicologist

How did you choose your present profession?
My profession is in the field of environmental toxicology. I came to this area of science during my undergraduate studies. It was a natural fit based on my coursework and degrees that I was pursuing. I was studying fisheries and wildlife and had also enrolled in a Biochemistry degree program as well. These two degree programs provided a course of study that gave me a foundation in both biology and chemistry. One of my undergraduate advisors, Dr. Eugene Rolofs, suggested that aquatic toxicology or environmental toxicology might be a good fit with my training. My interest in environmental studies and concern about pollution lead me into this area of research.

What were your biggest motivators?
Environmental pollution was a growing issue in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. This was an area of science in which I could have a career and make a difference.

Who have been your greatest mentors or heroes?
There are many great scientists that have shaped and molded my professional life and my career. My biology teacher in high school, Mrs. Knopp, really inspired me to follow a course of study in the life sciences. She was full of enthusiasm and was a great teacher. There were many other teachers along my career path. In graduate school, I was fortunate to study in the laboratory of Dr. John P. Giesy, where I learned the fundamentals of research, how to conduct environmental research studies, write scientific papers and develop research ideas. There was a great atmosphere around the lab, in large part due to the quality of the other students that were either part of our lab or around it. I learned so much from my fellow graduate students. We had a lot of discussions about science and life. The other graduate advisors on my committees were also great mentors, particularly, Dr. Matthew Zabik, Dr. P.O. Fromm, and Dr. Steve Bursian. In general, the environmental toxicology program at Michigan State University had some outstanding faculty.

Heroes, well it would be nearly impossible for someone in my line of business not to have been influenced and impressed by Rachel Carson (Silent Spring). She set the stage for much of the environmental contamination awareness that occurred over the last three decades of the twentieth century.

Was there a pivotal event in your life that helped you decide on your career path?
While working for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources I had a wonderful set of colleagues. They were bright and very much engaged in trying to set up regulations to help control the release of pollutants into the waters of the state.

What has been the biggest surprise in your life as a scientist?
The fact that science and the associated information were not the most important factors in the development and execution of environmental regulations about pollution. I was quite naïve!

What would you recommend for students wanting to pursue a similar career?
Make sure while you are studying, you take time to get some practical experience, it is invaluable.

What do you like best about your profession?
There are a lot of great people in this profession.  Also, it helps to know you are working on important environmental issues.

What would you say has been your greatest achievement?
The greatest achievements in science nowadays come from team efforts, and are not based solely on individual efforts. The scientific accomplishments I have been associated with are no different. I am very fortunate to lead a great research team. They are a constant source of intellectual stimulation, fresh perspectives and pride.

Are you optimistic for the future of the planet and if so why?
I am optimistic about the planet, but not certain about its inhabitants. Dinosaurs ruled. Humans now rule. I wonder what will be next.

What are your greatest fears for the future of the planet?
We just do not seem to learn lessons very well or very quickly. Our population continues to grow and we continue to consume more. That trend has got to change, but I do not have viable solutions.  Hopefully, the next generation of scientist will.

What’s the one message you would like the next generation of scientists to hear?

Visit Tillitt's bio page »


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