Carmen Williams, M.D., Ph.D., was awarded tenure May 2 by the National Institutes of Health. She heads the NIEHS Reproductive Medicine Group and holds a secondary appointment in the Epigenetics and Stem Cell Biology Laboratory (ESCBL).
“Carmen has done outstanding work on calcium signaling in female reproductive biology and is a valued colleague and collaborator in the ESCBL,” said Trevor Archer, Ph.D., head of the lab. “We are very happy for this well-deserved recognition and [to know] that these critical scientific interactions will continue, now that she is tenured.”
Williams was low-key, yet excited about the news. “It means I get to keep trying to figure out this cool stuff that might really be important for reproduction,” she said.
“Carmen is unique,” said her boss, Kenneth Korach, Ph.D., head of the Reproductive and Developmental Biology Laboratory. “She brings a wealth of knowledge in clinical reproductive medicine to complement ongoing basic research studies at NIEHS.”
Williams, who was born in eastern North Carolina and grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, joined the NIEHS Reproductive and Developmental Biology Laboratory in 2007. “My overall work is about how the environment affects human fertility,” she said.
The Williams lab has two sides. “One works on how sperm turn eggs into embryos — What happens in the egg that turns it into something that’s going to become a whole new organism rather than a cell that’s going to die in a few hours?” she explained.
Sometimes that process fails, as happens without proper estrogen signaling in the female reproductive tract at the time the eggs are being fertilized. “Not only do many eggs not fertilize, because the sperm can’t get to them, but the few eggs that do become fertilized die because the reproductive tract treats them like bacteria or a pathogen.”
The other side of the lab focuses on estrogen exposure — work she started at NIEHS. “If you expose a mouse to an estrogenic compound when it’s very young, it becomes infertile. A lot of environmental contaminants have estrogen activity. That’s an important connection to what NIEHS really cares about.”
Prolific writer, award-winning mentor
In 2015, Williams was voted the NIEHS Trainees Assembly Mentor of the Year. Besides mentoring, she is active in service to NIEHS as a committee member, judge, and conference organizer and participant. Also, papers that Williams has co-authored have been selected as NIEHS intramural papers of the month and papers of the year.
“When I came to NIEHS, I could do what I always wanted to do — spend time in the lab, teach, work with students, and investigate reproduction on a basic level,” said Williams. “It’s not so much that tenure changes your life, but with it, I’m able to continue doing those things.”
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)