Alison Williams on Equity and Inclusion in STEM and Beyond

When Vice President for Equity & Inclusion Alison Williams was in High School, a professor she babysat for hired her to work in his lab. She would wash glassware and perform other lab-upkeep tasks during the school year, and worked full time over the summers.

Alison Williams ’81

“The side story to this which I didn’t really know until 20 years later was that this man, who grew up in Wyoming, who was just not somebody you would think would be a promoter of equity— his dream was to live where he couldn’t see his nearest neighbor— he had been in a department meeting where they were deciding which of the candidates they had interviewed would be hired,” Williams said. “In his mind, by far, the best candidate was a woman who had come to interview and he said he sat in this room and listened while they went around the table and all made excuses why they couldn’t hire her. At one point somebody said, ‘Well, what if she gets upset? What if she starts to cry?’ He said that it hit him then what women were up against in the sciences. From then on, he only hired women to work in his lab.”

Williams’ first job in the lab beyond washing glassware was studying PCBs, a highly toxic organic pollutant, in cow manure. An accident at a plant in Michigan had resulted in cow feed contaminated with PBCs, making cows sick and jeopardizing meat and milk products. Williams’ lab analyzed the fate of PCBs and PBBs ingested by cows, studying factors like what amounts of the chemicals were excreted as waste and what amounts ended up in the milk of the cows.

Williams loved working in the lab and knew that she wanted to major in chemistry in college, but she also wanted to continue pursuing her passion for playing the oboe. She was accepted by Princeton University and toured the school. When she mentioned she wanted to study music and chemistry to the tour guide, however, the response she received was “You can’t be serious.” In contrast, the open nature of the Wesleyan University’s programs and the opportunity to do research in a lab as an undergraduate led Williams to apply and accept a spot in the Class of ’81. She received a B.A in Chemistry and deepened her musical expertise through extracurricular activities.

When she started school at Wesleyan, Williams found the transition difficult at first.

“My first year of chemistry at Wesleyan did not go well. I was put in organic chemistry because I had worked in a lab, but I really didn’t have the fundamental knowledge that I needed for that course,” Williams said. “I was pretty discouraged at first but I had summer internships in different places and that helped keep me going.”

The support of her professors played a key role in Williams’ progression through the major and her decision to continue on to graduate school. Professors like Stewart Novick encouraged her to apply and assisted her throughout the process. Williams knew she was interested in spectroscopy and biological molecules, but didn’t exactly know what area she wanted to specialize in. She ended up picking the University of Rochester based on the breadth of research offered by its chemistry department.

For her dissertation, Williams worked on building a laser-based system with the ability to heat up samples in a nanosecond to study the physical properties of DNA’s double helix. Williams used infrared laser light to heat the samples and unravel the DNA strands. She then used UV Absorption Spectroscopy to observe how quickly the helix would form under different conditions. Her project specifically focused on studying the role that ions like magnesium and sodium played in the rate and thermodynamics of helix formation.

After graduating, Williams decided to pursue a career as a professor, holding positions at Swarthmore, Princeton, Barnard, and Wesleyan over the course of her career. Williams had not enjoyed working as an intern in big pharma, so she felt the role of teacher was a better fit for her.

“I did summer internships in industry and I didn’t like what I saw in terms of the politics of industry,” she said. “A couple of times, I had worked on a great project and then it was canceled because it didn’t look like it was going to create enough profit for the company.”

Over the course of her career as a professor, Williams consistently found herself playing the role of not only teacher, but supporter.

“Students camped out in my office,” she said. “For most of my career, I was always the only professor of color in the science division. Students of all backgrounds but mostly from marginalized identities, would just camp out and tell me things about what their professors said, and I felt that half the time what I really was was a cheerleader, saying ‘You can do this, maybe you have to study differently, but you can do this.'”

The time she spent helping her own students, as well as her own experiences in STEM, compelled Williams to shift her career towards roles involved with promoting diversity and inclusion at universities.

“When I took organic chemistry, there were two African Americans in a class of 150; the professor didn’t think that girls should be scientists,” Williams said. “And when I started teaching, I would get a lot of challenge from students who just couldn’t imagine that someone who looked like me could be a chemistry professor. They were rude in class and they would question my very existence in the building. That, too, fueled my desire to not have other people go through some of the experiences that I have.”

Rather than focusing on providing support for students, Williams wanted to change the way Universities were operating on a fundamental level.

“Students come and go and I loved being in the lab with them and I loved supporting them, but I wanted to try and minimize those experiences that drove people away from the sciences, and help the faculty learn to support students in a better way,” Williams said.

Williams held positions at Oberlin College and Denison University before starting work at Wesleyan as Vice President for Equity and Inclusion/ Title IX Officer. Her job involves handling Title IX complaints, fostering supportive environments for both staff and students, reviewing financial aid policies and running the campus’s Resource Center, among other responsibilities.

“Overall, we’re trying to work on making Wesleyan as inclusive and equitable as possible,” Williams said. “That takes so many different forms: getting a diverse student body, staff and faculty, looking at hiring practices to make sure they’re open, equitable, and fair, helping people understand their own biases that affect who they hire or how they interact with students, and making sure there aren’t barriers that keep people from thriving due to identity.”

Williams explained that her dual background in chemistry and music helped prepare her for the work that she does.

“A lot of the time I’m trying to get people to communicate across differences, and just knowing how people have assumptions and use different styles of communication has shaped some of the ways that I do my work,” she said. “There’re always miscommunications. You say one thing, but what’s heard is something completely different. When we can sit down with people and help them talk it out and help them understand each other, that’s really enriching.’

For Williams, helping people reflect on their own thinking is one of the most rewarding aspects of her work.

“I really love when somebody comes to one of our workshops and is transformed or their thinking is shifted,” she said. “Sometimes it’s very painful when somebody realizes, ‘I was really racist in the way I was approaching this, or I have these biases that I didn’t realize were impacting how I taught.’ Those moments really fuel me to some extent, because you know that once somebody has that realization, they’re going to change their approach.”

While Williams acknowledged the work being done in the University’s STEM departments to make STEM a more inclusive and welcoming environment, she emphasized that more must be done.

“There’s a lot of good things going on, but I do wish that more faculty were active participants in that effort,” she said. “It seems like it’s the same professors who really are making all the effort and that some aren’t. One of my struggles is ‘how can I draw other people into the work and help them understand the importance of it?'”