Meet the scientist behind the science: Dr. Bart Williams

As a kid, Dr. Bart Williams didn’t plan on being a scientist.

That all changed after a summer spent working in a lab, the first step in a fruitful career that has contributed to advances in how we study cancer and shaped our understanding of bone diseases such as osteoarthritis.

Now director of Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Cancer and Cell Biology and a recognized leader in the field of bone biology, Dr. Williams’ work continues to reveal new aspects of the communication networks that ensure skeletal health and that, when disrupted, contribute to disorders that affects millions of people around the world.

VAI Voice caught up with him to discuss his groundbreaking research, what led him to become a scientist and what he sees on the scientific horizon.  

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Madison, while my dad was a graduate student at University of Wisconsin. Instead of going to Washington, D.C., and becoming an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he decided to go back to the family dairy farm.

What led you to become a scientist? How did mentorship play a role in your decision?
Originally, I went to college to become a high school teacher and basketball coach. My father said, “You should try being a math major,” so that’s what I intended to do when I went to Carroll University, a small liberal arts college outside of Milwaukee.

In my second semester, one of the required classes didn’t work with my other scheduled courses, so I decided to take any class that fit, which turned out to be biology. I enjoyed it, so I kept taking biology classes, and subsequently decided to double major in biology and chemistry. One of my professors suggested doing research in summer because he thought I had an aptitude for it. At the time, I was thinking of becoming a veterinarian so the same professor recommended I do research in another lab at the Medical College of Wisconsin. While there, another mentor suggested I consider becoming a researcher and pursue a Ph.D.

As you can see, there were a few people along the way who were instrumental in directing me on this path. This was critical because I always had been interested in science but didn’t initially see it as a career option.

What do you study?
My lab studies a group of genes and proteins that, when active, play a role in cancer. When they are not active, these same genes and proteins are associated with age-related disorders, such as osteoporosis and some neurological conditions.

What led you to this field?
At MIT, I did my graduate work in the lab that developed some of the first genetically engineered mouse models for cancer, which are critical for studying how cancers develop and progress in a living system. Specifically, I studied Wnt signaling, an important cellular communication network, in the context of cancer both there and in my postdoctoral fellowship.

In 2001, two years after I joined Van Andel Research Institute as employee no. 21, Wnt signaling was linked to early onset osteoporosis and a rare disease called osteoporosis-pseudoglioma syndrome. We had a lot of the necessary materials and background knowledge to look at Wnt’s role in bone diseases, so we decided to try it. It was a nice niche that no one really had worked on yet.

What do you see on the horizon when it comes to cancer and bone diseases?
Thanks in large part to the advent of Big Data and improvements in technology, there are a lot of opportunities to find and leverage new drug targets. It’s our job to figure out which of these targets are best fit for translation into improved treatment strategies.

In terms of science, what constitutes success?
In a broad sense, I think success is contributing to the general advancement of knowledge. On a more specific level, success is finding something that influences the development of a new therapy that helps improve peoples’ lives.

Learn more about Dr. Williams and his research here. Throughout the year, we’ll be highlighting the Institute’s scientists, giving you a sneak peek at the people behind the science. Read them all here.