The announcement Feb. 23 that epidemiologist Michelle Williams, Sc.D., will lead the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health was greeted by many at NIEHS with appreciation for her past service and enthusiasm for her new role.
Service on Board of Scientific Counselors
From 1999 to 2003, Williams served on the NIEHS Division of Intramural Research Board of Scientific Counselors, an external peer review committee that advises the scientific director and evaluates the accomplishments and plans of scientists in the division.
“As a prominent epidemiologist, Michelle brought a valuable public health perspective to the deliberations of the board,” said Dale Sandler, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch. “Her expertise and insights were especially welcome in her review of our research.”
Overseeing grant-funded research
Williams will complement her service to in-house scientists with her new role as dean, overseeing NIEHS-funded researchers in the Harvard School of Public Health. Grants from the institute support both individual researchers and the Harvard NIEHS Center for Environmental Health.
“Our faculty members are engaged in research that combines population and patient-based studies with mechanistic laboratory research,” Williams said. “And with center funding, our studies focus on gene-environment interactions and are organized around three important environmental exposures — metals, organics, and particles.” She explained that the center integrates basic and applied environmental health science and fosters collaborations across departmental and institutional boundaries.
An innovative researcher and award-winning mentor
In her research, Williams combines epidemiological approaches with biological and molecular studies, especially on issues of pregnancy and delivery. She has collaborated with scientists around the globe, including South America, Africa, and Asia.
Williams is also widely recognized as a gifted teacher and mentor. In a 2012 Harvard interview, Williams shared her enthusiasm for working with students. “Students are freethinking, freewheeling. They’re fearless,” she said. “And that helps my science. I think we all benefit from them more than we would admit.”
Training grants vitally important
One way NIEHS supports students is through training grants. “I was on [a training grant] during my predoctoral training at Harvard, and for that I am deeply grateful,” Williams said. “Twenty-six years later, this grant continues to be vitally important for legions of fellows who are dedicating themselves to studying the potential health risk of exposures and informing policy decisions around reducing environment-related diseases.”
“We couldn’t be happier with Dr. Williams’ appointment,” said Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training. “She is known for designing rigorous studies that lead to public health benefits, such as identifying risk factors for disease and biomarkers for exposure. Add in her passion for working with trainees, and she is an excellent choice to lead the Chan School.”
According to a Harvard press release, Williams received the Harvard Chan School’s Outstanding Mentor Award in 2015, adding to her teaching and mentoring awards from the American Public Health Association and the White House.
While at the University of Washington, Williams founded and chaired the Multidisciplinary International Research Training, which received the university’s Brotman Award for Instructional Excellence. That program is now housed at Harvard.
Williams, who received both her master’s and doctorate degrees from Harvard, has served as chair of the school’s epidemiology department since 2011. Her term as dean will begin in July.