Meet EPA Scientist William (Bill) Mundy, Ph.D.
Dr. William Mundy is a Neurotoxicologist with the Systems Biology Branch of the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory (NHEERL), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). His primary research interests include the effects of toxic chemicals on intracellular signaling in the nervous system and the use of high-throughput screening using in vitro models to assess the effects of toxicants on neuronal development.
What research are you doing at EPA?
We have all heard about the rise in developmental disorders of the brain like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and there is some evidence that part of the cause of some of these developmental disorders may result from exposure to chemicals in the environment. I’m trying to develop faster and cheaper ways to test chemicals that are potentially in the environment to see if they can affect processes in the developing brain. So, the way I look at it, my research matters because I’m trying to protect infants and children.
How does your research protect infants and children?
In my research, we are using a process known as high-throughput toxicology to detect chemicals that may be harmful to the developing brain. The brain is probably the most complex organ system in the body. Essentially, brain development is a series of steps that cells must undergo to mature and grow into that complex organ.
What we do here is study the cellular processes that are part of brain development. We can look at cells growing in a dish and examine them in a high-throughput manner, in other words, by using an automated microscope. That’s really the key to what I do.
We grow these cells in 96-well plates, which means we can test the effects of 96 different chemicals at once. We start by growing the cells, and, then, we expose them to chemicals. At that point, we look at them using the high-throughput automated microscope. That microscope focuses on the cells; takes a picture; and, then, analyzes that picture. It can show you how many cells there are, the shape of those cells, and how many synapses are formed, all in a very short time, approximately a half-hour.
Can you tell us about your background?
I did my undergraduate work at the University of Massachusetts, where I was an environmental science major. In the 60s and 70s, there was a big environmental movement, and I lived in the Washington, DC, area, so I was very aware of all of the political events that were occurring, including the creation of EPA. Back then, I had no clue I’d ever work for EPA, but, as a teenager, I was very interested in the environmental movement. When I received my bachelor’s degree, I found out there weren’t many jobs for people with environmental science degrees. However, eventually I found a job working with Ph.D.-degreed toxicologists, and I started to learn about toxicology as a field. The scientists I worked for urged me to go back to school and get a degree in toxicology. I applied to several schools, including the University of Kentucky, which offered me a fellowship. What’s kind of funny is, at the time they offered that fellowship, I had almost decided not to go back to school. They called me up and said they’d offer me a fellowship and, within the span of about 5 seconds, my life changed; I said, “Okay!” Then, I went on to get my Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky in pharmacology and toxicology.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a scientist?
That’s a hard one because, as far back as I can remember, I have always liked science. As a child, one of my favorite Christmas gifts was a microscope. I can remember playing with it in the basement of our house. It came with a straw, and, when you put the straw in water, little amoebae would hatch and swim around. I can remember looking through the microscope and being fascinated. So, I’ve always been interested in science. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t.
What do you like most about your research?
I feel like the work I’m doing here is very important. If I can help protect infants and children from chemicals that may be bad for their brain, I feel really good about doing that. I like research, and I like going into the lab every day and learning new things. I also like the technology and using the automated equipment. You may think you know what’s going to happen with every experiment, but, usually, you don’t. Every day brings a new discovery.
If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be?
The first would be Edward O. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist. He studied ants, but he thought a lot about how evolution shapes animals and society. The second would be Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish neuroscientist who was the first to study the structure of the brain at the cellular level. He looked at cells under the microscope and, then, drew them by hand. What my microscope shows, he could do by looking and drawing.
Do you have any advice for students considering a career in science?
If you’re really interested in something follow it; you’ll find a way to make a career out of it. That’s the exciting part of science. When you follow what interests you, you can always discover something new. Also, don’t be afraid to change careers. If you’re studying one aspect of science, and something else comes up that’s even more interesting, follow that. Don’t be afraid of change.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.