Growing Up In Science: Phil Williams (WashU Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences)

May 24, 2023
4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
McDonnell Sciences 928 (Medical Campus)

Growing Up In Science is a global series dedicated to sharing the personal narratives of scientists, with a focus on the hidden challenges of becoming and being a scientist throughout all stages of one’s career. We’ll feature scientists at WashU via in-person talks at 4pm in McDonnell 928.

Full schedule, Growing Up In Science

If you have questions or are interested in getting involved, please contact Julia Pai.

Official Story:

Phil Williams got his bachelor’s degree from University of Florida (Interdisciplinary Studies: Neurobiology), a PhD from WashU (Neuroscience, Rachel Wong), did postdoctoral work at the Technical University of Munich (Thomas Misgeld) followed by a brief postdoctoral stint rolled into an Instructor position at Harvard Medical School/Boston Children’s Hospital (Zhigang He). He started his lab at WashU in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences in 2019. His groups focuses on the degeneration of retinal ganglion cells. These neurons relay visual information from the eye to the brain, and degenerate in common blinding diseases like glaucoma. His research examines intrinsic cellular properties that drive either survival or death in degenerative conditions in order to better formulate strategies for therapeutic intervention.

Unofficial Story:

Now this is a story all about how
I ended up running a lab in this town
And I’d like to take a minute to share my lore
I’ll tell you how I became an Assistant Professor

West of Philadelphia born and raised
On the playground is where I spent most of my days
Then one day when I got home from school
My Dad said to me, “you know I pity the fool
that has to deal with seasonal depression.
So I’m moving the family down to Florida, where there’s sun.”

I arrived in Orlando at age seven or eight.
Just in time to start the fifth grade.
My Mom worked at Disney, we had plenty of tickets.
We’d go all the time, no rides, just to kick it.

In middle school I became a band nerd
With my bassoon and my bass drum, I was heard
But AP Chemistry would change my life
This is the class were I met my wife

[record scratch]

narrator: OK, I did eventually realize that fitting my life story into the verses of an early 90’s sitcom theme song wasn’t the most direct process.

I grew up in a super supportive household, but with really no idea of science or academia. My father went to art school for college, and our family had annual passes to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the one with the Rocky statue. To get me to go with him to the art museum, he’d trade a trip to the Academy of Natural History where I loved the dinosaur and geology exhibits. I feel like these wooden dinosaur skeletons or sponge pills I’d often come home with where my gateway to biology as a child. 

I was a typical band nerd in middle and high school where I played bassoon and marched bass drum, and music was really my major focus. I didn’t have any role models among my science teachers in school but I left high school with this idea that I wanted to understand how the world is represented and processed in our minds. Entering college, I started as a dual Music and Psychology major. My psychology curriculum steered me towards Neuroscience. I spent my freshmen year mostly practicing pool with dreams of playing on ESPN2, but I eventually ended up finding a research position in a spinal cord injury lab. I was immediately fascinated by pretty much everything in the lab. Even mundane tasks like cutting tissue blew my mind. How could it be possible to cut a section of tissue 500nm thick? This experience also started a deep-seated interest in the fragility and impermanence of the nervous system. I switched my major to “Interdisciplinary Studies”, which let me build my own curriculum. I basically just lived in the lab for the rest of my undergrad.My path to establishing my own lab can best be described as a meandering straight line, where I never left academia, but ran into a few different obstacles. I performed PhD training in 2 different graduate programs in 3 different universities. I followed this up with 2 postdoctoral positions on 2 different continents. While this wasn’t the most efficient career trajectory, I picked up a rather broad training and experienced vastly different mentoring approaches, which probably taught me more about how not to run a lab. Setting up my own research team has been a mix of exhilarating, terrifying and gratifying. I find it really rewarding being a mentor.