"I Like Building Things"


A distinguished professorship brings Thomas Williamson – a pharmaceutical industry veteran and double alumnus – back to UNCW.

Ditinguished Professor Thomas Wiliamson

A quarter of a century ago, Thomas Williamson ’94, ‘96M, the inaugural Yousry Sayed Distinguished Professor in Pharmaceutical Sciences, was, himself, a UNCW graduate student. His desk sat in the chemistry research lab of one of the university’s best-known faculty members.

The professor’s name? Yousry Sayed.

Sayed, now a university trustee, wasn’t involved in the selection of Williamson as the holder of the professorship bearing his name, but Williamson recalls the pleasant surprise of the news.

“It was like a reunion of old friends,” he says.

The pleasantries quickly gave way to a big challenge: building UNCW’s pharmaceutical sciences Ph.D. program from the ground up. But Williamson – with 20 years of experience in the pharma industry, including a stint as a director at Merck managing more than $150 million in projects annually – was ready for the task.

“I was working with amazing scientists on amazing projects to help human society by creating these medicines, and I was in a central role – so I was able to see all the different stages of the process,” says Williamson, who received both his undergraduate and master’s degree from UNCW. “But one of the things I really like doing is building things. And the more and more I thought about [the professorship], the better I liked it.”

In an interview, Williamson shared more about what brought him back his alma mater, the research he’s conducting at UNCW and how he’s ensuring students have a hand in that work.

What inspired you to come back to UNCW?

One of the things I always noticed in hiring dozens of people in the pharmaceutical business is that you get people from top-tier research groups from all over the world – Harvard, MIT, Stanford, University of Barcelona. Yes, the job is about science and solving tough scientific problems – but they’d know little about the pharmaceutical business or what we were actually trying to do. As a director, I found one of my biggest challenges was teaching new hires the business and helping them translate their scientific expertise into real-world deliverables. I thought [this position] would be a great opportunity to come to UNCW and work with students just starting their academic careers, ushering them through the pharma business process so that by the time they graduate, they don’t need much extra training in that area.

What research have you been working on since returning to UNCW?

I’m very interested in marine natural products drug discovery, particularly the molecular characterization portion of that. We’re interested in unique ecological relationships in the marine environment that can be sources for different therapeutics.

For example, there’s an isopod – more or less a parasite – that lives in the mouth of a fish. It can enter a fish at an early age, cut off the blood supply to tongue so the tongue falls off, and then it takes the place of the tongue – without any adverse effects to the fish or the isopod. Now, if someone were to go and cut part of you off, you’d have an infection – but that doesn’t happen here, so there must be some kind of antibiotic at work. It turns out that one of the bacteria that we culture from this organism produces some potent antibiotic compounds. These compounds were already known, but they’d been found in other organisms associated with plants. That’s a proof of concept of the kinds of things we are doing in this lab.

How do you involve students in this work?

That’s something that’s great about UNCW – students get in the lab and do real research. Since my time as a student, that’s one of the biggest changes that I’ve seen. Our lab includes about a dozen students, half undergraduates and half graduate students. We like that balance – you can get the undergraduates started, then the graduate students can work with and train them. You never learn anything better than when you teach it to someone else.

At UNCW, we share a lot of core instrumentation. At big programs, there’s usually a technician in the middle. Here, students get experience in using instrumentation, optimizing experiments and applying the data they get from these experiments to the actual conclusions of our research. That’s something that makes UNCW stand out – students having interactions with our collaborators and using modern analytical instrumentation that looks just like what they’ll see in the real world. We’re already seeing some big successes. We have realized 100 percent employment opportunity for everyone who’s left our lab. They leave here ready to work.

Attracting top faculty like Williamson through endowed distinguished professorships is a key priority of Like No Other: The Campaign for UNCW. To learn more or make a gift, visit uncw.edu/give.