When Christopher Williams, a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation, was a child, he and his brothers used to walk down to Herring Run in his native Baltimore to collect specimen for some of his earliest science experiments.
“We would catch guppies and tadpoles and put them into a little kiddie pool and then just keep them and watch them develop from tadpoles into frogs and things like that,” he said. “And then as a kid I always had a fascination with animals and human evolution—like why didn’t we have claws and why couldn’t we do all of the cool things other animals could do.”
Williams followed through with his passion for learning about the natural world. As an undergrad at Frostburg State University, he led an experiment on caffeine’s effect on breathing in humans. As a McNair Scholar, he contributed to a study of hummingbird preference for different floral trait combinations that was taking place at the University of Maryland–College Park.
“It was really cool because I got paid to do research as a McNair Scholar,” Williams said. “And more than money, you get an experience. And I didn’t have to have a job somewhere else to support myself. Everybody there was either a minority, a first-generation student, or a lower-income student, so I got to work with people who were similar people or people who had similar struggles. And then I just got to be around smart people who helped motivate me and helped keep me on track.”
During his first summer as a McNair Scholar, he ran the caffeine experiment and learned some hard lessons on laboratory science. “I gave some of the other fellows caffeine and then monitored their breathing,” Williams said. “And I did that, but I set up the experiment incorrectly. I was a little embarrassed that I set [it] up incorrectly, but at the end of the day it was a great experience because I learned that you have to think about your experiments really deeply and plan them out very carefully before you do them. And I took those lessons into my next experiment.”
In 2011, while a graduate student at Georgetown University, he studied how Giardia lamblia, a parasite found in untreated sewage and contaminated water, degrades RNA. Most recently, he completed postdoctoral research at the National Institutes of Health, where he studied how the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, a free-living, transparent roundworm, controls fecundity and reproduction.
But in recent years he has shifted his focus from laboratory work to encouraging members of underrepresented communities to join the STEM fields and assessing the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Centers: Integrative Partnerships program. In September 2015, he founded The First Life Science Program, a free afterschool education program for elementary school students to encourage them to learn about biology. Williams’ goal is to promote science literacy and increase the number of underrepresented students who enter careers in science.
One of the ways that he aims to do this is to provide elementary school students with their first memorable science experience before they reach middle school. “My first STEM experience was going to this weekend engineering camp at Morgan State University,” Williams said. “So that was the first program that I had and I have really fond memories of that.”
Growing up in Baltimore, he said that he had several peers who had the potential to reach or surpass some of the goals and milestones he’s achieved, but didn’t have the same access to STEM experiences early in childhood that he did. So his decision to focus The First Life Science Program on K-12 students is a strategic one.
“The reason that we focus on K-12 students is because I think we need to reach these students as early as possible before a bunch of external influences come in and start to take their attention away from their academic abilities,” Williams said. “I want to get them before they go to middle school, when they still are curious and aren’t afraid to show their excitement for something that others don’t think is cool.” He said that the ideal time to reach children is before they enter their adolescence, though his organization works with the children at all grade school levels.
Williams, who is in his early thirties, is part of a STEM workforce that is “no more diverse than [it was] fourteen years ago,” according to U.S. News & World Report. That’s around the time when he was beginning a career in STEM. He said that being the only black male in a science classroom is something that shocked him at first. While the feeling of being the only one or one of a few in the life sciences didn’t bother him, it also didn’t go unnoticed.
“There are times where if I did poorly on a test, it would be easy to think [there] must be something wrong with me and, then if there’s something wrong with you, you’re going to try to identify the major differences that you think are wrong with you,” Williams said. “And if you’re the only minority, it’s easy to point to that. If you’re the only man or woman in a place it’s easy to point to that, so it’s easy to [say], if I’m having a tough time, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this because I don’t get it as fast as others.”
But, fortunately for him, Williams said that he was always considered the smartest among his friends and received a lot of encouragement from them. “It kept me in the game and it didn’t let me quit,” he said. By the time he got out of graduate school at Georgetown, he was no longer shocked or surprised to be the only or one of a few minorities in the classroom.
“I expected it when it happened and I was fine with it. I was used to it after experiencing it for the last ten years,” Williams said. “What is even cooler is when you’re not the only person and you instantly find someone to attach to and you have this sense of ‘Yes, I do belong. I’m not the only one here.’ So I found that a lot at NIH.
“There are tons of [professional] scientists, there are thousands of postdoc scientists. In all of my four years of being there, I’ve met less than twenty African-American postdocs, so when you find one, you attach yourself to them, especially if they’re good people. When you find someone else who is a person of color, it makes you feel good.”