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Master of Science (MSc) in Toxicology

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 interest you and the research supervisor that has the most interesting project.

We don't expect you to limit yourself to papers or research run through the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, staff there just do the administration for the degree. We've included some ideas of potential research supervisors below, but the world is your oyster.

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

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Themes for the MSc in toxicology

To help you find information that relates to your area of interest you might like to look at one of these four themes:

For further information, please email

Once you have talk to us and are happy with your course, enrolment is via eVision.

Course advising at the University of Otago

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Information about papers

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

For the MSc (Toxicology) students are required to take PHAL 428, the basic toxicology paper, and the research preparation course PHAL 495 (or an equivalent).

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

The remainder of the papers are your choice.

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 partially selected by the 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 and present two research papers to the Departmental staff. 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
  • Written and oral presentation skills

Possible papers

In addition to the two required courses (PHAL 428 and PHAL 495) students must take further courses to make up an additional 60 points required for the 120-point study load for the first year of the MSc course. This means students can take an additional two 30-point papers, three 20-point papers or an additional four 15-point papers. 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.

However if students select a paper that is outside their area of undergraduate study they must seek approval from the department teaching the post-graduate paper during course approval (eg if you studied science as an undergraduate but wish to take a post-graduate law paper, you must gain approval from the Law Faculty to do this).

The best thing to do is to contact the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, we can help you with designing your course and the approval process.

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Possible supervisors and research projects

Below is a list of potential supervisors but students are also welcome to contact us about other areas of interest to see if it might be relevant within a MSc (Tox) degree.  

Professor Rhonda Rosengren, Pharmacology
Research summary: Toxicological research in my laboratory involves the identification of novel treatments for estrogen receptor negative breast cancer and hormone refractory prostate cancer. In conjunction with Dr. Bill Hawkins in the department of Chemistry we are synthesizing novel drugs and examining their activity in both in vitro and in vivo models of breast and prostate cancer. In conjunction with Dr. Khaled Greish we are developing our novel drugs into nanomedicines.

Dr Arlene McDowell, Pharmacy
Research summary: Drug delivery for veterinary species and the application of pharmaceutical formulation for wildlife applications

Associate 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.

Associate Professor Grant Butt, Physiology
Research summary: Movement of drugs and other substances across the gut wall; The effect of outer membrane vesicles from gram-negative bacteria on intestinal epithelial cells.

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.

Dr Khaled Greish, Pharmacology
Research summary: Dr Greish's areas of interest span the formulation and characterization of different advanced drug delivery systems, anticancer drug discovery/development, tumour vascular biology and animal tumour models.

Dr 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.

Dr 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.

Dr 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.

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 Susan Dovey, General Practice and Rural Health
Research summary: I have researched clinical topics in general practice for nearly 30 years, addressing research questions in postmenopausal osteoporosis, respiratory tract infections, diabetes, breaking bad news, attitudes to death and dying, immunisation, and preventive medicine.

Dr Kim Hageman, Chemistry
Research summary: My research concerns the sources, fate, transport, and impacts of organic contaminants in the environment. Chemicals of interest include pesticides, flame retardants, PAHs, and PCBs. In my laboratory, we quantify these chemicals in air, fish, sediments, vegetation, and water. We also use computer modelling to predict and understand their environmental behaviour.

Dr 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.

Dr 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. A stipend is available for a Masters student to work on this project.

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For up-to-date career information on jobs in toxicology and current job listings please visit our Facebook page:

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.

To read more about one students passion for Toxicology and the skills shortage in this area see this article.

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.

Below is a number of links to toxicological career websites:

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Information for new applicants and programme requirements

You have two options for obtaining a MSc.

1. MSc by papers and thesis

If you have a bachelor's degree (BSc), then you may apply for a MSc by paper and thesis which takes a minimum of two years' full-time study. Due to the challenging nature of this degree, the grade average is set at B+ (75–79%).  The first year of the MSc consist of:

  • and further three papers offered at fourth year level from across the Science and Health Science Divisions.  

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, eg PHAL 495 or BIOC 495). This will be undertaken in the same department as their research project.

The research 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 4th year papers as well as a B+ in their thesis preparation paper. Students enrol in the thesis code of their home department (XXX5). For departments without a thesis paper, the student will enroll in PHAL5B.  A thesis is submitted then for external examination.

2. MSc by thesis only

If you have a BSc with Honours then you may do a MSc by thesis only. Due to the challenging nature of this degree, the grade average is set at B+ (75–79%) for all papers in your BSc(Hons). This degree consists of a research project carried out in one of the research laboratories. A thesis is submitted then for external examination.

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

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Regulation for the Degree of Master of Science (MSc)

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Scholarships for Master of Science in Toxicology

The University of Otago offers scholarships during the research component of the MSc. Note that pre-research papers are not covered by these scholarships. The following scholarships are offered:

There are no closing dates for these scholarships.

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Contact details

For further information about post-graduate study in Toxicology please contact the department. 

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Useful links