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What is an MSc in Toxicology?

Toxicologists study poisons. You may have heard the old saying "the dose makes the poison". Yes, everything is toxic at some level which makes the study of toxicology relevant to a number of areas including human health, the environment, public policy, drug development and human safety.

Across the University of Otago there are a range of potential study options from managing our workplaces to food safety and human responses to chemicals. The following sections show some of the potential papers and supervisors that you could work with during the two-year MSc (Toxicology) course.

The MSc (Toxicology) is designed to be flexible, you select the papers that have the most relevance to your research project.

You do not have to limit yourself to papers or research run through the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology,. We've included some ideas of potential research supervisors below, but feel free to approach any supervisor at Otago University and see if they have a project that is examining a toxicological area of interest to you.

Let us know what you want to do / research / be and we'll help you put your course together!

Information about papers

Most MSc students will spend their first year of the two-year course completing papers relating to their research.

MSc (Toxicology) students are required to take PHAL 428, the basic toxicology paper, and the research preparation course PHAL495 (or the equivalently coded 495 in the department where the research will be conducted).

These two papers comprise 60 points of the required total 120 points that comprise the first year of MSc study.

Required papers

PHAL 428 (20 points)

PHAL 428 is a multi-disciplinary paper that teaches the core concepts of toxicology. Each year the content will be aligned to the current student cohort allowing them to investigate how basic toxicology principles align to their areas of interest. The paper is taught using current toxicology literature that is tailored to the interests of the enrolled students. This means that students with little or no prior toxicology knowledge can participate and learn at a level that is relevant for them.

Core concepts covered:

Basic toxicology concepts including: mechanisms of toxicology, absorption, distribution and excretion of toxicants, xenobiotic metabolism, toxicokinetics, chemical carcinogenesis, hepatotoxicology.
Based on student interest some of the following areas may be included: genetic toxicology, developmental toxicology, renal toxicology, toxic effects of pesticides, toxic effects of metals, toxic effects of radiation, venoms and animal poisons, air pollution, ecotoxicology, food toxicology, forensic toxicology, occupational toxicology, regulatory toxicology, other.

Core skills developed:

  • Critical analysis and thinking
  • Scientific study design
  • Communication of technical information to a non-specialist audience
  • Time management and organisational skills
  • Problem solving
  • Written and oral presentation skills
  • Listening skills

PHAL 495 or equivalent (40 points)

PHAL 495 is the research preparation course. It is normally taken in the first year of the Master's course and provides an opportunity for students to read and interpret literature that is directly related to their proposed research project. Students will produce a literature review relevant to their study. They will also before a small pilot research project related to their main research project as well as present the results and discussion of those results in both written and oral formats. Students who are planning to work with a supervisor in a department other than The Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology will normally take an equivalent research preparation course.

Core skills developed:

  • Sourcing and evaluating scientific literature
  • Scientific study design
  • Presentation of information in a research (scientific) style
  • Time management and organizational skills
  • Problem solving
  • Basic laboratory skills
  • Written and oral presentation skills

Possible papers

In addition to the two required papers students must take further papers to make up an additional 60 points required for the 120-point study load for the first year of the MSc course. Unlike many other courses students are free to choose just about any combination of papers that they like, this means it is possible to combine a zoology paper with a geology paper and a genetics paper if this is the best combination for your interests and study pathway.

The remainder of the papers are decided upon by the student, supervisor and the Toxicology Program Director. Contact to discuss your paper selection before enrolling via eVision.

Some environmental papers that could be included in the MSc (Toxicology):

  • BTNY 461 Plant Physiology and Biotechnology (20 points)
  • BTNY 465 Plant and Environment (20 points)
  • GEOG 471 Environmental Impact Assessment (20 points)
  • GEOG 472 Developments in Environmental Management (20 points)
  • GEOG 474 Coastal Management (20 points)
  • GEOL 401 Current Topics in Geoscience (20 points)
  • LAWS 421 International Environmental Law (15 points)
  • LAWS 440 Environmental Law (15 points)
  • MARI 429 Coastal Marine Environment (20 points)
  • MARI 431 Antarctic Marine Biology (20 points)
  • MICR 462 Microbiology and Immunology research (20 points)
  • PUBH 733 Environment and Health (30 points)
  • ZOOL 413 Environmental Physiology (20 points)
  • ZOOL 416 Freshwater Ecology (20 points)
  • ZOOL 418 Conservation Biology of Marine Mammals (20 points)

Some human health papers that could be included in the MSc (Toxicology):

  • ANAT 451 Functional Human Anatomy (20 points)
  • ANAT 452 Reproductive Biology (20 points)
  • ANAT 456 Developmental Biology (20 points)
  • BIOC 461 Research Design and Analysis in Biochemistry (20 points)
  • BIOC 462 Molecular Biology (20 points)
  • CHEM 461 Topics in Advanced Chemistry (20 points)
  • GENE 411 Current Topics in Genetics (20 points)
  • LAWS 447 Law and Medicine (15 points)
  • MICR 461 Molecular Microbiology (20 points)
  • MICR 464 Medical Microbiology and Immunology (20 points)
  • NEUR 459 Neuroendocrinology (20 points)
  • NEUR 461 Clinical Neurology (20 points)
  • PHAL 430 Advanced Topics in Pharmacology and Toxicology (20 points)
  • PHSL 471 Systematic Physiology (20 points)
  • PHSL 473 Cellular Physiology (20 points)

Note: this is not an exhaustive list.

Possible supervisors and research projects

Below is a list of potential supervisors but students are also welcome to contact about other areas of interest to see if other projects and supervisiors are relevant within a MSc Toxicology degree.

Professor Mark Lokman – Zoology

The presence, and sometimes, abundance of estrogens in the environment, especially from human sources (contraceptives, etc) and anthropogenic substances (plasticizers, etc) is well documented in industrial countries. In New Zealand, the prevalence and levels of environmental estrogens have not received much attention, but there are a few reports to indicate that in New Zealand, too, these endocrine disrupting chemicals may be present in the environment. There is ample scope to develop research projects that can focus on aspects of estrogen accumulation in the environment, e.g.:

  • effects of estrogens on animals, food webs, productivity, etc
  • prevalence and severity of estrogen contaminants in Otago waterways
  • ability of soils to bind and release estrogen

Associate Professor Arlene McDowell – Pharmacy

Research summary: Drug delivery for veterinary species and the application of pharmaceutical formulation for wildlife applications.

Professor David McBride – Social and Preventive Medicine

Research summary: Chemical and physical exposures, including persistent organochlorine compounds; Occupational epidemiology and military medicine: occupational and environmental medicine, environmental risk factors.

Professor Richard Cannon – Dentistry

Research summary: Professor Cannon is using metabolomics to investigate the changes in metabolism that are associated with the change from yeast to hyphal growth. A major focus of his research is the drug resistance of human fungal pathogens.

Professor Stephen Duffull – Pharmacy

Research summary: Currently my research involves the development of pharmacological models, modelling of data and the design of clinical studies.  These foci essentially revolve around the therapeutic areas of coagulation, malaria and clinical toxicology.

Professor Rhonda Rosengren – Pharmacology

Research summary: Toxicological research in my laboratory involves a range of projects including novel low cost water purification systems for fresh water and drinking water, toxicity of new nanotechnologies such as carbon nanoonions, toxicity of synthetic cannabinoids, carcinogenicity of nitrates in drinking water and role of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor in metabolic disease.

Associate Professor Anita Dunbier – Biochemistry

Research summary: The majority of breast cancers require the hormone oestrogen to grow. Drugs that act by preventing the production of oestrogen are the most effective treatment currently available for this type of cancer. However, these drugs do not work well for all patients. Our previous research suggests that attracting immune cells to the cancer site may cause the cancer to keep growing during therapy. This project aims to identify which immune cells are recruited to breast cancer cells during treatment and how the cancer cells signal to recruit them to the tumour.

Professor Ivan Sammut – Pharmacology

(Research interests: cardiomyopathies, ischaemic heart disease, heart failure, ischaemic neurodegeneration, mitochondrial dysfunction and heme oxygenase)

Professor Kurt Krause – Biochemistry

Research summary: Structural biology of infectious diseases, structure-aided drug design, protein crystallography, x-ray diffraction, structure and function of enzymes and proteins including antibiotic targets, redox proteins, nucleases, luciferase, and bacterial pathogenesis factors.

Associate Professor John Ashton – Pharmacology

Research summary: The particular focus of my lab is the endocannabinoid system. Discovered less than two decades ago, this is a system of receptors, messengers, and enzymes that regulates a number of physiological processes. Cannabinoid drugs act on this system with a variety of effects, some of therapeutic benefit, and some potentially harmful. Our lab seeks to better understand the endocannabinoid system to tease out the beneficial effects of new cannabinoid drugs from their side effects.

Associate Professor Brian Monk – Dentistry

Research summary: The main aim of Dr Monk's research is to develop new anti-infectives, particularly antimicrobial agents, by understanding of the structure and function of accessible membrane proteins at the surface of pathogenic organisms.

Professor Chris Hepburn – Marine Science

Research summary: Impacts of elevated CO2 on coastal ecosystems. We use an ecosystem-level approach to predict what changes will occur to complex and variable coastal ecosystems and related fisheries as a result of elevated CO2 (Ocean Acidification). This research uses carefully designed and controlled lab-based experiments alongside quantification the contribution of different groups of species of in coastal ecosystems of today to provide better predictions of likely changes in coastal seas as CO2 concentrations increase.

Dr Sarah Mager – Geography

Research summary: My broad research interests are in the field of glaciology, covering both understanding contemporary processes in Antarctica, as well as glaciers and climate change within the contemporary and ancient New Zealand setting.

Professor Paul Smith – Pharmacology

Research summary: My major research interest is in the vestibular and auditory systems and how damage to them can result in plastic changes in the brain. We study the effects of vestibular and auditory damage on the brainstem vestibular and cochlear nuclei, and also on other areas of the CNS such as the medial temporal lobe, especially the hippocampus. I am appointed to the HRC Standing Committee on Therapeutic Trials (SCOTT).

Dr Candace Martin – Geology

Research summary: Research covering mine restoration of an active gold mine(Macraes) and a closed gold mine(Wangaloa) including acid mine drainage.; Heavy and dangerous metals are naturally occurring in many geological formations and especially in mineralised zones. Often the process of mining can enhance the concentrations in the environment.

Associate Professor Tina Summerfield – Botany

Research summary: Toxic cyanobacteria: In collaboration with Dr Susie Wood and Dr Lesley Rhodes at the Cawthron Institute, we are examining the impact of toxin-producing cyanobacteria on Pacific Oysters.


Graduates of toxicology are employed in various roles from environmental management to pharmaceutical law to occupational health. MSc graduates in Toxicology are sought after by a wide range of industries to undertake product development, product safety evaluation and regulatory requirements (e.g. is a mining company meeting the required environmental standards for mine discharges).

US statistics indicate that 73% of students with a master's degree in Toxicology were employed in industry-based positions.

Read about one student's passion for Toxicology and the skills shortage in this area

Aside from industry, graduates also have opportunities in academia (generally following further study), in government departments, as consultants and in private research foundations. For more information the Society of Toxicology has published a Resource Guide to Careers in Toxicology.

Toxicological career links

Information for new applicants and programme requirements

You have two options for obtaining an MSc.

1. MSc by papers and thesis

Students with a bachelor's degree (BSc), then you may apply for a MSc by paper and thesis which takes two years' full-time study. Due to the challenging nature of this degree, the grade average is set at B+.  The first year of the MSc consist of:

  • PHAL 428 Current Research Literature in Toxicology (20 points: full year)
  • and further three papers offered at fourth year level from across the University of Otago.

The selection of these papers should be undertaken in consultation with the supervisor and the program director for the MSc (Toxicology).

  • Students will also enrol in a thesis preparation paper (XXXX 495, e.g. PHAL 495 or BTNY 495). This will be undertaken in the same department as their research project.

Usually the papers year must begin in the first semester which starts in either the last week of February or first week of March. Thus applications need to be submitted well in advance of these dates for international students so that admission and visas can be processed in time. In rare cases, entry may be granted for a second semester start date (approximately mid-July). However, this is dependent on the papers chosen for the degree and approval by the Program Director.

The project is carried out in the second year in one of the research laboratories.  To enter the second year, the student must have obtained a minimum of a B+ average in their 400 level papers as well as a B+ in their thesis preparation paper (XXXX495). For the research year, students enrol in the thesis code of their home department (XXXX5). For departments without a thesis paper, the student will enrol in PHAL5B.  At the conclusion of the research a thesis is submitted for external examination.

2. MSc by thesis only

Students with a BSc(Hons) or other degree with a research thesis component may apply for a MSc by thesis only. Enrolment for the MSc thesis only can occur at any time of the year. Due to the challenging nature of this degree, the grade average is set at B+  for all papers in your BSc(Hons) degree. This degree consists of a project carried out in one of the research laboratories. Students enrol in the thesis code of their home department (XXX5). For departments without a thesis paper, the student will enroll in PHAL5B.   At the conclusion of the research a thesis is submitted for external examination.

The application form for either the MSc by papers and thesis or MSc by thesis alone should be submitted via eVision

Regulation for the Degree of Master of Science (MSc)

Scholarships for Master of Science in Toxicology

The University of Otago offers scholarships during the research component of the MSc.  Note that scholarships are only available for the research year.  The following scholarships are offered:

There are no closing dates for these scholarships.

Contact details

For further information about post-graduate study in Toxicology, please contact:

Programme Director

Useful links

This information must be read subject to the statement on our Copyright & Disclaimer page.

Regulations on this page are taken from the 2023 Calendar and supplementary material.

Lucy Stiles

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