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Five years after graduating, toxicologist returns to York College as an expert

Kel Hanson head and shoulders

As Kelly “Kel” Hanson ’14 stood at the lectern presenting her research project to a sea of undergrads, she couldn’t help but feel proud. Just five years before, she was one of those undergrads, listening to experts present their research. Four years before that, she wasn’t even sure how she was going to make it through college.

Now, she was back at her alma mater, York College of Pennsylvania, presenting in the Richard Clark Lecture Series. There’s no other way to put it, Kel says, the experience was just plain cool.

Finding the right fit

Kel’s decision of where to go to college was based on proximity. She wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, that wasn’t her hometown. But when the Glen Rock, Pennsylvania native started classes at a university in Pittsburgh, she struggled. “I just got lost there,” she says.

Her classes were huge, and everything felt impersonal. Her grades dropped. And at the end of her first year, she found herself at a crossroads—stick it out and hope things improve or try something new.

Her first visit to York College made the decision a no-brainer. The Chair of the Biological Sciences Department spent hours showing Kel and her mom around campus.

Coming from Pittsburgh, where she barely met her professors, this was the sign she needed. She’d go from classes with hundreds of students to ones with a maximum of 30 people. Most of her classes were more like 17 students. “At least for me, it’s the most significant factor that I could consider if I were to do this all over again,” she says.

Learning how to learn

Kel’s senior research project was another eye-opening experience. “It’s transformative not only for what you learn, but also for the experiential learning,” she says. “You see it through from beginning to end.”

It was intimidating at first. What could this college senior possibly discover that hadn’t already been discovered? Looking back now, she says, that kind of thinking was ridiculous. “There’s so much that we don’t know.” That process prepared her for grad school. It also helped her know that she was heading in the right direction.

Kel finished grad school last year with a PhD in Toxicology at the University of Rochester. In August, she was hired as a toxicologist at SRC in Syracuse. In September, she was asked to speak at York College. “It felt like a victory lap or something,” she says. “Like, ‘Look what I did.’ ”

After her lecture, she talked with some of the undergrads who were interested in grad school or toxicology. “It’s crazy how time flies and all of the sudden you’re the experienced person,” she says.

Dream job

After five years working on the same research project, Kel came to a conclusion. “Academic biology is not for me,” she says. But what she’s doing now as a toxicologist at SRC is a perfect fit. The company is a consulting firm that works with agencies such as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Defense. SRC's Environmental Health Analysis business unit assesses new and existing chemicals to find out if they have adverse health effects and supports EPA's decisions on how they should be used. It’s a job full of variety and real-world applications. “I love that I get to have an impact,” she says.

Kel finds the field of toxicology fascinating. To be successful, she says, you have to know a little bit about everything. Its applications are almost limitless. And after so much schooling, she’s excited to be out doing hands-on, meaningful work. “This is it,” she says. “This is my dream job. I’m here.”