Theodore Slotkin (PhD ’70) entered the former Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology when it was ranked fourth in the country, largely because Harold Hodge—one of the founders of the Society of Toxicology—had been chairman for many years.
He had a specific project in mind, based on his interest in novel chemical scaffolds for psychoactive drugs.
The department, small by today’s standards, accommodated what he calls an “unusual—and as I now see it, somewhat impertinent—request.” It provided him, as a second-year student, the chance to serve in a quasi-faculty instructional role, teaching pharmacokinetics to incoming PhD students, and allowed him to “jam a lot of courses together” so he could defend his dissertation after just three years in the program.
“Two attributes of the program were essential to my training and subsequent success: flexibility and opportunity,” he says.
For the past 50 years, Slotkin has taught PhD-level pharmacokinetics and biostatistics as a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University. He carries his department’s largest teaching load—10 times the average—and maintains an active laboratory that recently published its 581st peer-reviewed paper.
His research centers around the effects of drugs and neuroactive chemicals on brain development.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that our brains work through exchange of information at the level of chemical signals,” he says.
Slotkin has made major contributions to our knowledge about maternal and adolescent nicotine/smoking and brain development, neuroactive pesticides, and effects of drugs used in the management of preterm labor. His work has been cited prominently in the Surgeon General’s various reports on tobacco and health, as well as for major regulatory decisions by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.
“Exposure to neuroactive chemicals in our environment is making us increasingly stupid,” he says, “and it’s important for us to figure out what’s making us stupid before we’re too stupid to figure it out.”