UW News

January 21, 2011

President Obama honors UW epidemiologist Dr. Michelle Williams as one of the nation’s outstanding mentors

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

President Barak Obama today, Jan. 21, named Dr. Michelle Williams, University of Washington (UW) professor of epidemiology and global health in the School of Public Health, as one of the nation’s outstanding mentors in science, math and engineering.

Williams, an expert in maternal and infant health, is among 11 individuals and 4 organizations selected as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. The mentors will receive their awards at a White House ceremony next week.

The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, awarded by the White House each year to individuals or organizations, recognize the crucial role that mentoring plays in the academic and personal development of students studying science or engineering — particularly those who belong to groups that are underrepresented in those fields. By offering their expertise and encouragement, mentors help prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers while ensuring that tomorrow’s innovators reflect the full diversity of the United States.

Candidates for the Presidential Mentoring Awards are nominated by colleagues, administrators, and students in their home institutions. The mentoring can involve students at any grade level from elementary through graduate school. In addition to being honored at the White House, recipients receive awards of $10,000 to advance their mentoring efforts.

“These individuals and organizations have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that the United States remains on the cutting edge of science and engineering for years to come,” President Obama said. “Their devotion to the educational enrichment and personal growth of their students is remarkable, and these awards represent just a small token of our enormous gratitude.”

Williams is director of the UW’s Multidisciplinary International Research Training (MIRT) Program and director of the Reproductive Pediatric and Prenatal Epidemiology Training Program at the UW. She is also co-director of the Center for Prenatal Studies at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, and an affiliate investigator at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Her major research interests and activities are women’s reproductive health and child health. Her current activities include research and teaching collaborations with epidemiologists in Peru, Ecuador, Vietnam, Thailand, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and the Republic of Georgia.

In 1993, Michelle developed the UW-MIRT Program, which trains students from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds for research and leadership careers in public health. By identifying and implementing alliances for this global health program, Williams provides undergraduate students with life enriching and academically rigorous experiences in developing countries. At the same time, students and faculty in the MIRT Program dedicate themselves to addressing global public health problems with their partners in developing countries.

At the Center for Prenatal Studies at Swedish Medical Center, Williams co-directs a multidisciplinary research program involving clinical scholars, basic scientists and epidemiologists. Her research is on integrating genomic sciences and epidemiological research methods to identify risk factors, diagnostic markers, treatments and prevention targets for disorders that contribute to maternal and infant mortality.

Always interested in engaging young scholars in research, Williams, her collaborators, and her cadre pre- and post-doctoral fellows study groups of pregnant women to try to understand the determinants of preterm delivery, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and placental abruption. In her laboratory at Swedish Medical Center, Williams is working to identify unique gene expression patterns that may predict which pregnant women will go on to develop hypertension in late pregnancy (preeclampsia) or deliver prematurely. She has authored or co-authored more than 180 original research papers.

The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Williams grew up in Queens, New York, attended public schools, and aspired to go to college on a sports scholarship.

With the encouragement of her high school teachers, Williams decided to earn her bachelor degree in genetics from Princeton University. She went on to receive a master of science degree in engineering from Tufts University, a master’s in demography and a doctor of science in epidemiology from Harvard University.

She has received the UW Brotman Award for Instructional Excellence and the Lilienfield Award from the American Public Health Association for excellence in teaching epidemiology. She gave the Spring 2010 UW School of Public Health Distinguished Faculty Lecture.