Toxicology Ram: This mascot is killin’ it

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Let’s be honest. Some people have scoffed that CSU’s sheep mascot is not as fearsome as, say, a charging buffalo, snarling tiger or warring eagle.

Well, scoff no more. We’ve got a new rendering of our favorite Rambouillet.

And this CAM is a contaminant. Make that a Superfund site.

Call him “Toxicology Ram.” Each link in this graphical depiction is a lethal Lego: Among other toxins, his curved horns are made of formaldehyde, heterocyclic amines, acetaminophen and dioxins, compounds found in manufactured building products, charred meat, over-the-counter medications and the byproducts of industrial incineration. In high enough doses, some of these chemicals may cause cancer, acute liver failure or severe hormone disruption.

Toxicology graduate student Tim Hoffman created the computer-generated diagram of a ram’s head using chemical structures that represent toxins of interest in his scientific field. He’s not morbid; he just wanted to form an eye-catching puzzle of compounds that he and fellow toxicologists often examine to understand health effects of chemicals on people, animals and the environment.

“I love chemical structures,” said Hoffman, a personable 23-year-old who minored in art while earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Delaware. “I wanted to represent the toxins we talk about all the time. I merged toxicology and CSU into one image by creating a ram.”

Using Toxicology Ram as a learning tool

Colorado State University
Graduate student Tim Hoffman is drawn to toxicology for the role it plays in human and environmental health.

Toxicology Ram comprises 44 chemical structures. The design arose as Hoffman fiddled in his free time – outside of classes, studying, research, laboratory responsibilities and serving as president of the CSU Toxicology Student Association.

Hoffman is a visual learner, he said, so creating designs with chemical structures helps him memorize important information. The designs also are a door to discussing the field of toxicology and its role in understanding and improving health.

“When Tim became my student, I realized how lucky we are to have him in the program,” said Dr. Marie Legare, an associate professor of toxicology in the CSU Center for Environmental Medicine. “He’s incredibly smart and creative in how he approaches problems – and always enthusiastic about discovering something new.”

Sounds about right for a rising toxicologist who draws chemical compounds when he’s doodling and rattles off intended and unintended effects of toxic agents at the drop of “atrazine.”

“That’s an herbicide used to kill weeds in corn fields by inhibiting photosynthesis. We use 70 million pounds a year of it in the United States. The problem is that atrazine can get into groundwater and surface water runoff, and it has been linked to endocrine-disruptive effects that might be a contributing factor in the decline of amphibian populations,” Hoffman said, with barely a breath.

And there it is – atrazine – the chemical compound that forms the forehead of Toxicology Ram.

Exploring effects of cancer-causing chemicals

Tim Hoffman, PhD student, explores chemical formulas. January 26, 2016
Chemical structures are essential to the science of toxicology.

Hoffman is pursuing a doctorate in toxicology and said he came to CSU for the quality of its program, in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences.

His dissertation research uses new computational models to simulate movement of chemical compounds through the body, and their toxic effects over time. Hoffman is particularly interested in polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a family of cancer-causing chemicals that for half a century were widely used for heat and electrical insulation and to create flexibility in plastics, among many other commercial and industrial applications.

The manufacture of PCBs was banned in the United States in 1979. But improper disposal led to worldwide persistence of PCBs in air, water and soil, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hoffman hopes his computational modeling will accurately predict the toxicity of PCBs with low-dose, long-term exposures, which can be worrisome because PCBs are known to accumulate in fat tissue. He plans to present findings at the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology in New Orleans next month.

“Testing in this manner would really give you a better understanding of the mechanisms and subtle effects of PCBs down at the cellular level,” Hoffman said. “I really want to facilitate the push forward to new, innovative testing in toxicology so that we can define risks of exposure more effectively.”

His scientific field centers on human toxins and ecotoxins that can have alarming health effects. But Hoffman is exuberant about the field’s contributions.

“I love toxicology,” he said. “It helps us cultivate a healthier and more sustainable world.”