Olivia Stephenson

Olivia Stephnesen

Doctoral Student Grateful for St. John’s Experience

Olivia Stephenson has spent her entire academic career at St. John’s University. The Ph.D. student in Toxicology arrived as an undergraduate in 2011 and quickly found a home in the Toxicology program in the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

The Connecticut native initially came to St. John’s to enjoy the experience of living away from home after applying to schools throughout the northeast. “Ultimately, I loved that St. John’s was so close to Manhattan, and my brother was living in Astoria, Queens, at the time, so I was far enough from home but still close to family.”

Olivia applied to the BS/MS Toxicology program at St. John’s and has worked in the lab of Louis D. Trombetta, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, since her senior year. Olivia recalled that Dr. Trombetta took the time to sit with her and make a list of all the labs on campus and their field of research.

“I decided his lab was the best fit and was immediately welcomed warmly by my new lab mates. As a graduate student, it is important to have a good support system. Whenever I am stuck and can’t figure something out, Dr. Trombetta is always there to guide and help me.” 

As her master’s studies came to an end, Olivia felt her research project—studying a class of pesticides known as Dithiocarbonates and their effect on different muscles—was incomplete. She decided to stay at St. John’s to pursue her doctoral degree because that is where she felt most at home. “What’s great about St. John’s is that they provide funding and tuition remission if you are a graduate assistant or teaching fellow, so I was supported by the University for both of my graduate degrees and have been able to pursue school full time.”

Olivia also studies the fungicide Mancozeb and the drug Disulfiram (Antabuse). “Even though these compounds have shown neurotoxic effects, they are still used widely throughout agriculture and medicine, which is a public health concern,” she noted, adding that an average of seven million pounds of Mancozeb is used on orchards and vineyards every year, and Disulfiram is used in the treatment of alcoholism. “I am conducting different experiments to determine how these compounds cause their toxicological response,” she explained.

After the COVID-19 outbreak, Olivia worked in the St. John’s Clinical Venture Laboratory under Marc E. Gillespie, Ph.D., Vice Provost for Graduate Education, Clinical Operations and Research, and Assessment, providing COVID-19 testing to St. John’s University students, faculty, and administrators. “Our role was to help keep the campus as safe as possible during the pandemic. Frequent testing throughout the past year has allowed students and faculty to return to campus while still remaining compliant according to New York State regulations,” she stressed.

In addition to COVID-19 testing on campus, Olivia serves as a Student Representative on the University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which oversees protocol review and maintenance of standards for the Animal Care and Use program at St. John’s.  

Upon graduation, Olivia hopes to get a government job or possibly work for a cosmetics company. “I don’t necessarily have a specific field that I want to enter because I think it’s important to be flexible and open to available opportunities. Most companies need toxicologists to ensure their products are safe, so there really are many options in my field.”