Sr. Communications Specialist
Catherine (Cathy) Sprankle, M.S., is a Senior Communications Specialist at ILS, an RTP company that provides toxicity testing and related services to NIEHS, EPA, and other government and commercial clients. Cathy’s group supports an NIEHS office that develops and evaluates non-animal methods for chemical safety testing. Cathy manages her group’s website, writes news articles on her group’s activities, and has a variety of other communications responsibilities. Prior to joining ILS, Cathy worked as a lab scientist for a number of RTP-area institutions including NCSU, GSK, and NIEHS. She has been an active member of STC Carolina since 2013 and has been chapter treasurer since 2016.
In this interview, she speaks with Martin Wall about her work experience and gives our STC-C readers an inside look at tech comm at the intersection of public science and government regulations.
Martin Wall (MW): Tell us in general about your work.
Cathy Sprankle (CS): I’m a contractor for Integrated Laboratory Systems, my group is within the computational and biology sciences division of ILS, but our traditional core services in animal testing. We started out as a lab science business but became more oriented towards computation over time. One of our authors, the head of the genetics division, was co-author of the most recent Paper of the Year, which speaks to the high quality we do in our work.
We support RTP as a for-profit business that contracts for government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Labor, the National Toxicology Program and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Much of work involves investigating the safety of soap, personal care and other products.
I am a writer and editor in my group, this is unusual in my line of work! I find it rewarding and enjoyable to work with scientists because few writers truly get to do this. I spend roughly half of my time editing scientific articles and presentations at meetings and the other half writing web content or news articles about our work for a general audience.
Our work is very state of the art, often revolving around producing computer models as to whether a given chemical will be toxic or not. We understand that we are very fortunate to be working in this field at this particular time, due to the fact that people have been talking about using computer models to conduct these kinds of tests for 30 years but it’s time has not really come until now.
MW: What has prevented computer modeling for animal testing up until now?
CS: Traditionally, animal testing has been necessary to perform these kinds tests, but the reality is that almost any animal testing facility requires a heavy amount of infrastructure and there are sometimes questions about whether the animal tests truly generate results that are relevant to the drug’s interactions with humans. While many tests fail to produce the desired results in animals, it is also not unheard for drugs that produce the desired effect in animals to crash in human trials because of the biological differences between humans and the tested animal in question. You do not want to go through the research all the way to learning that your product crashed in human trials because this will take up a very great deal of time and money.
You have to work with an extremely large volume of data. It has only been in the past 10 years or so have programs gotten to the point where we have computers that can process it all. Take, for example, using test tubes to test for one aspect of toxicity. You can’t just run a simple test, you need to be able to know what it means in the broader picture. How do you determine whether or not a chemical leads to a particular toxic effect? Toxicity is a complex process with many variables involved.
Think of a chemical that “could” cause allergic dermatitis, i.e. a reaction such as a rash from a skin care product. The chemicals have to bind to certain proteins in the skin and cause a response from a certain cell type. All parts have to come together to correctly map the data. We have test tubes that test each one of those aspects. But we need to combine the data to get a truly accuate picture. When you need to combine multiple test data sets and computer models, that takes up a high volume of computer power. Fortunately, we are able to use the NIH’s computer systems to assist with this process.
MW: Tell me about a notable case that you have experienced.
CS: Three years ago there was a chemical spill in West Virginia. Another office of the National Institutes of Health research lab was tasked with asked by the authorities with telling them all that they could about the chemicals that were now present in the water due to the spill. Estimates were created using computer modeling regarding how harmful the chemicals would be. These estimates were not as good as estimates would have been after 2 years of animal testing on the subject but it did give them something to go by. This was a major opportunity to provide a proof of concept case that demonstrated that a lab can perform useful forecasting using this technology to get a answers to environmental questions on a pressing timetable. The National Toxicology Program learned from the incident and they are now better equipped to rapidly generate an answer in the event of chemical spills. My office does not work with this type of environmental forecasting directly but we do interact with many federal agencies that do perform this type of work.
The value of science comm
The work we’re doing is starting to have a real-world impact…I can help [the scientists’] findings reach wider audiences by explaining them in a way that is relatable to non-scientists.
MW: Tell us about your work regarding the Section 508 – GSA Government-wide IT Accessibility Program requirements
CS: My experience with 508 compliance stems from the fact that I manage my group’s website. Everything on the website must be compatible with the government’s requirements regarding the accessibility to handicapped persons. For example, the PDF and Microsoft Word documents must support screen readers and navigation aids used by people disabilities.
I will often work with Adobe PDF documents that have been sent to us from outside of our organization that I will need to put on the website. I go into the back-end sections of Adobe Acrobat, it has controls that let you set up the tags and the metadata to allow it to be read by these screen reader and navigation aid programs. If a person has a disability that leads them using keyboard controls to navigate quickly through the Adobe PDF document, it must have good headings, bookmarks and structure to facilitate rapid movement.
MW: What have you seen in your career that you are passionate about?
CS: The fact that the work we’re doing is starting to have a real-world impact. We work closely with the EPA on pesticides and Pollution Prevention and toxics with replacing animal testing with computer models and cell-based testing.
The pesticide office traditionally has six animal tests for each pesticide that must be done before a product goes to market. They had to perform these six tests not only with every chemical but every new formulation of that chemical. Two of those tests are now not run anymore because of our work. Within the next ten years we will have gotten to the point where very few of those tests will have to be run outside of very unusual cases.
The Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics looks at any new chemical that goes to market to judge its safety. They use a large number of computer modelling programs to keep harmful chemicals out of the water and air. They sometimes require companies to take the chemical that they were marketing and run tests on it, but most of the chemicals were not required to be tested in order to be used or marketed. The office usually just had to be notified and they could then proceed to ask the company for any data they had. We know much more about these what-if scenarios that don’t have mandatory testing requirements because we can test them much more easily with computer models.
MW: Tell us something else that’s unique about your work.
CS: As far as my job goes, I have the opportunity to talk about the work of the scientists that I work with. I can help their findings reach wider audiences by explaining them in a way that is relatable to non-scientists. Most of my writing involves creating articles for scientific journals and developing a journalistic style. I have learned to adapt my writing to different audiences to meet difference needs and different levels of technical experience.
Here are a few articles I’ve written for the NIEHS newsletter that may give you a better sense of our work:
- SOT honors computational, nonanimal testing pioneer (Environmental Factor, February 2019)
- Building confidence in new scientific methods challenges researchers (Environmental Factor, December 2018)
- Regulators play key roles in replacing animals in tox testing (Environmental Factor, October 2018)
- Replacing animal testing — progress and challenges (Environmental Factor, September 2018)