Gaither grew up in a rural community in Washington State and was a first-generation college graduate. “Not everyone grows up seeing scientists and having a chance to see what kinds of careers might be for them,” she said. “It’s important to me to make science more accessible to others.”
Gaither has been elected to serve as an 2021-2022 officer for the Pacific Northwest Association of Toxicologists, one of 18 regional chapters of the Society of Toxicology.
This regional chapter includes members in academia, industry, government, and nonprofit institutes from Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington States.
She will serve as outreach coordinator for the group, working to highlight the diversity of people in toxicology for undergraduate students so they can see the field as a potential career option.
“Scientists come to the field of toxicology from very different backgrounds,” Gaither said. “The field requires that.”
Toxicologists study chemicals and other substances to determine if they are harmful to humans, other living organisms, and the environment. They use knowledge from biology, chemistry, and physiology.
Gaither used molecular biology to study the disruption of normal protein expression in cancer during her graduate work. Now at PNNL, she uses chemical biology to identify active enzymes involved in the metabolism and bioactivation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as part of PNNL’s long-standing collaboration with the Superfund Research Program at Oregon State University.
The goal is to assess how these chemicals can have different health effects depending on how individuals respond to them. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons have been found to cause cancer, impede normal development, and target neurological systems.
When studying the human health impacts of certain chemicals, toxicology involves communicating about risk and safety.
“The reason I study toxicology is to inform and protect human health,” she said. “That means I have a responsibility to communicate our findings to the public about whether a chemical or type of exposure is safe or not.”
Gaither recently won a science communication award from the Society of Toxicology to attend a virtual workshop hosted by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.
“As a scientist, I feel it is important to actively participate in engaging people outside of the laboratory,” she said. “I try to meet people where they are and continue the conversation from there.”