Dr Asher Williams

Chemical Engineering
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, 2020
Tell us a bit about yourself – what was your PhD about and where did you study?

I am originally from Trinidad & Tobago and completed my P.hD. in Chemical Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York in 2020. My graduate work focused on metabolic engineering of microbes to produce sulfated glycosaminoglycans and related biosynthetic pathway and structural analysis enzymes. In particular, I investigated the biosynthesis of the carbohydrate-based drugs heparin and chondroitin sulfate, which are widely used in biomedical applications. My research focused on harnessing bacterial production systems for making these compounds as an alternative to the traditional and less sustainable animal extraction methods.

What do you do now? What did you decide to do next after gaining your PhD?

I am now a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell University. The goal of my current research is to simplify vaccine manufacturing in low-income countries by creating a cell-free synthetic biology platform for the biosynthesis of conjugate vaccines against bacterial infection. This toolkit will promote better access to costly drugs through decentralized production, as current technologies for making conjugate vaccines present economic and logistical challenges for distribution and can slow response to pathogen outbreaks. I am also exploring the use of engineered ex vivo immune organoids for modeling immune responses.

Before defending my thesis, I worked with Biogen’s gene therapy team for 6 months in Boston, MA to refine their viral vector purification techniques and develop a high throughput platform for rapid screening of recombinant clones using a TECAN robotic system. I definitely enjoyed my experience conducting research in an industrial setting, but opted to take up a postdoctoral position after graduation rather than remain in industry since I am still interested in pursuing a career in academia.

Has having a PhD helped in developing your career? If yes, what has been the biggest impact? If no, why do you think that is?

Absolutely. As a co-advised graduate student, I had the opportunity to be a part of two research groups working on multiple interdisciplinary projects, where I learned how to effectively multi-task and collaborate with diverse teams. My advisors were also very hands-off so that instilled in me a sense of independence with my research when it came to organizing data, troubleshooting experiments, writing and reviewing manuscripts, and connecting/communicating ideas. On top of the technical skills you acquire, many of the soft skills gained during a PhD are transferrable to any future career path, whether research-related or not.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer prospective students considering a PhD?

Think carefully about the decision. The process can be taxing at times so ensure that (i) your reason for pursuing a PhD is strong enough to keep you motivated through tough times and unexpected circumstances (ii) you connect with mentors and some sort of support system. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to seek support during your PhD journey and connect with persons who share your experiences. Many times, we feel like we are alone in our struggles and challenges but this is never the case. Peer support can play a huge role in improving your personal well-being and ultimately your research outcomes.

And what one thing would you suggest that new PhD graduates should do next?
Stop and breathe. Take some time to not only rest, but to reacclimate yourself to life outside of graduate school and reassess your goals before making your next move. I felt incredibly drained at the end of my PhD – physically, mentally, and emotionally. I had to remind myself of who I was beyond my research and step up my self-care. I remember talking to my dad a few days after I submitted my dissertation and him saying that he had not heard me sound so happy and relaxed in years! Sometimes we don’t even realize how much stress and tension we are under until those weights are finally lifted.

Lastly, what’s your favourite memory from your time as a PhD student?
There are 2 things that come to mind for me.
1. When my very first 1st author paper was accepted for publication. After the long process of collecting and analyzing data, repeating experiments, constantly communicating with collaborators, and revising the manuscript, I felt incredibly relieved and proud when the process was finally complete.
2. Potlucks every few months with a group of Caribbean graduate students on campus. We shared traditional dishes, laughed and talked, and forgot about research work for a while. Those were definitely some of the best moments for me and this particular group was instrumental in helping me to get through graduate school.

Want to find out more about Asher?

Check our her personal website and follow her on Twitter using the links below:

Personal Website | Twitter

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