Donald A. Fox, PhD, ATS, ARVO Fellow

Reflections on a Toxicology Career

Dr. Fox is a renowned expert in neurotoxicology and retinal toxicology with 40 years of professional experience in government, academia and now as a pharmacology/toxicology expert consultant for Robson Forensic. He joined ATS in 2000.

What were your areas of research during your graduate, postdoctoral fellowship and faculty career?

My graduate training was at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center: Department of Environmental Health (Kettering Laboratory).My focus was in toxicology with a specialization in neurotoxicology. I studied the effects of developmental lead exposure on the brain and retina. After graduate school, I worked for a year at the US EPA as a pharmacologist/toxicologist studying the effects of automobile gasoline and diesel exhaust on the brain and retina. During my postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California: Davis I further trained in retinal and visual system cell biology. My research concerned the differential effects of lead on rod and cone retinal photoreceptors. During my faculty career at both the University of Texas Medical School: Houston and the University of Houston, my laboratory utilized a broad range of cell and molecular biology, biochemistry/neurochemistry, histology/anatomy and bioinformatics techniques to study the effects of prenatal and/or postnatal lead exposure on the developing retina and brain of both children and experimental animal models.

How did you become interested in retinal and visual system toxicology?

My early academic interests were in the areas of environmental and occupational toxicology. I developed these interests during my undergraduate training and research as a chemistry major and psychology minor. During that period of time, the retina and visual system were in the forefront of neuroscience, which stimulated and maintained my future curiosity and endeavors in these areas.

How do you choose which problems in toxicology to pursue first and spend most of your effort on?

When I was a postdoctoral fellow, we discovered that lead was a selective rod, but not cone, photoreceptor toxicant. Dr. Sillman [my postdoctoral advisor] and I published a paper on our novel findings in Science in 1979 [DOI: 10.1126/science.314667]. This started my academic research career in retinal and visual system toxicology, as an independent investigator, which lasted for 37+ years.

After retiring from my faculty position in 2016, I started working for Robson Forensic as an expert in toxicology and pharmacology. I now write technical reports, testify at depositions, and testify in court on a wide range of toxicants that produce pathophysiological, behavioral and cognitive changes as well as sensory-motor alterations and deficits. Thus, my primary current interests focus on forensic toxicology and pharmacology.

Recently, four SOT toxicologists (including myself) began forming a nascent Forensic Toxicology Specialty Section that could/would merge with the Environmental, Legal, and Societal Issues Specialty Section (ELSI) of SOT. After ELSI board and membership approval, SOT Council approved the integration of Forensic Toxicology with ELSI to form the Environmental, Legal, Forensic and Societal Issues Specialty Section (ELFSI). During my academic career, I focused my efforts and volunteered my time with the Mechanisms, Neurotoxicology, and Ocular Toxicology Specialty Sections.

Why will toxicology continue to be a critical scientific discipline for the 21st century?

The assessment and understanding of the beneficial and adverse effects of biological, chemical/drug, and physical agents on humans, animals and the environment is an essential part of healthcare, medicine and global health. In the past 10 years, new pharmaceuticals and environmental/toxicological chemicals have become increasingly sophisticated, new mechanisms and pathways of action of such in human and other species have been discovered, and the interactions of various and diverse biological agents and chemicals have been documented. Because of their training and experience, toxicologists are and will be uniquely positioned to assess, analyze and determine these beneficial and adverse effects.