June 5, 2009

Lab guru Williams doesn’t see himself as a big cheese

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Phil Williams, right, is congratulated by Naji Abumrad, M.D., after being presented the Research Enhancement Award. (photo by Joe Howell)

Lab guru Williams doesn’t see himself as a big cheese

When Phil Williams graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in 1974 with a Bachelor of Science in wildlife biology, there were no jobs available in his field. So he took a job at a local cheese factory.

“It was hot. It was hard work, very hard work. I learned very quickly that managing a creamery business just wasn't for me,” Williams said.

On a whim, he drove to Vanderbilt and applied for a position as a technician in the lab of Oscar Crofford, M.D., and John Liljenquist, M.D.

“Dr Liljenquist was very nice, but he fell asleep in the middle of my interview. He had 12 children and they obviously took a toll on his sleep schedule. I didn't know what to do, so I just sat there, and after a few minutes he woke up and said 'Report to work tomorrow morning at 6 a.m.,'” recalled Williams.

The rest, as they say, is history, a history that is in its 35th year and has spanned the tenures of four directors of Surgical Sciences.

Williams is, by all descriptions, a talented researcher and lab director.

In his early tenure at Vanderbilt, he designed a core laboratory for the Diabetes Research and Training Center and operates it to this day.

Naji Abumrad, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery, said he recognized early on he always wanted to perform his experiments with Williams at his side.
Abumrad ultimately asked Williams to direct the Division of Surgical Research.

“I consider myself the most fortunate person at Vanderbilt,” Williams said. “I have been allowed to do the things that I like and derive satisfaction from. I can take my mediocre talents and apply them to more talented individuals such that their ideas, goals and even their careers can move forward. ”

Talented researchers like David Wasserman, Ph.D., professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, say they could not have done their work without Williams.

“Part of the Phil Williams mystique is that it is not ever about him. He does not need recognition. For Phil it's about doing the best possible research, whether it be through the development of new research models, optimizing protocols or maintaining an efficient, hard-working laboratory.

“Since my first year at Vanderbilt in 1985, my nickname for him has been “bhagwan” because he's my guru for all issues of an experimental nature,” Wasserman said.

Williams' many fans wanted to find some way to recognize him, but the nature of his responsibilities and the lack of an advanced degree meant he fit no existing recognition category, so they invented a new one.

At the recent School of Medicine Spring Faculty meeting, Williams received the Research Enhancement Award, recognizing an individual for development, implementation, and/or creation of technology that elevates the research and science of multiple investigators.

“If anyone had told me back in 1974 that I would be a research associate professor and the director of the Division of Surgical Research, I would have said they were dreaming,” Williams said.

“It has been so rewarding to help young individuals grow into good scientists with very productive careers. I've been able to see many do just that.”