Dr. Bart Williams '91
2021 Recipient of the Distinguished Alumnus Award for Professional Achievement
Dr. Bart Williams is considered a world leader in the study of bone biology and the Wnt signaling pathway, a molecular communication channel that can play a role in cancer and other diseases such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
For more than 20 years, he has been leading a laboratory at Van Andel Institute (VAI), an independent research and educational organization based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. VAI studies the genetic, cellular and molecular origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and works to translate those findings into effective therapies to improve the health of current and future generations. Dr. Williams is also the Chair of the Department of Cell Biology at VAI, and has been a member of the VAI senior research leadership team since 2009.
Dr. Williams received his bachelor of science degree from Carroll University in 1991, majoring in biology and chemistry. He subsequently received his Ph.D. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1996 working with Tyler Jacks, who pioneered the use of gene-targeting technology. His postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) occurred in the laboratory of Harold Varmus, a Nobel Laureate and former NIH Director. He joined the Van Andel Institute as a Scientific Investigator in July 1999, and he is now a Professor and the Chair of the Department of Cell Biology.
His expertise and research area focuses on the Wnt signaling pathway, which plays key roles in normal organ and tissue development. Abnormal Wnt signaling contributes to the development of many human diseases, including cancer and osteoporosis. The Williams Laboratory, led by Dr. Williams at VAI, uses numerous approaches to understand how alterations in the Wnt signaling pathway cause human disease. During his scientific career, Dr. Williams has co-authored over 150 publications or book chapters, been invited to present more than 120 seminars on his laboratory’s work throughout the United States and in seven foreign countries, and served on over 60 review panels to evaluate scientific research proposals for the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, numerous philanthropic foundations, and several states and foreign countries. He has also served on the editorial board of seven scientific journals, reviewed manuscripts for over 70 journals, and is a member of several professional scientific organizations.
His laboratory is perhaps best known for its work in characterizing the role of Wnt signaling in bone formation and osteoporosis and has consulted and collaborated with numerous biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to provide insights into the development of therapies to treat this disease. They also work to understand how alterations in the Wnt pathway contribute to the initiation and progression of cancer and evaluate approaches on how to target these alterations to treat tumors in a way that minimizes side effects.
Dr. Williams was also a founding member of the Van Andel Institute Graduate School (VAIGS). He has designed and implemented an innovative course in which first-year students participate in a problem-based learning approach focused on understanding the historical context in which critical scientific discoveries were made. He has also directly trained 15 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and more than 30 undergraduate students within his laboratory. These trainees have successfully gone on to positions in clinical medicine, academic institutions, and biotechnology companies throughout the United States.
He also played a central role in service to VAIGS, serving at some point on almost every key faculty committee. According to the VAIGS Dean, Dr. Steve Triezenberg, in every setting, “Dr. Williams has shown a deep understanding of the mission and philosophy of the Graduate School and a strong focus on what will benefit students. For these contributions, he received the VAIGS Excellence in Graduate Education Award for his deep investment in the school’s founding and growth and his mentorship of students.”
Dr. Williams attributes the foundation provided by his training at Carroll for much of his professional success. He is particularly thankful for his two departmental academic advisors, the late Dr. Ted Michaud (Biology) and Dr. Richard Watkins ‘65 (Chemistry). Perhaps the most influential person in guiding his career path was Dr. Leslie Zettergren (Biology), who first introduced Dr. Williams to the idea of a career in biomedical research and directly mentored him during a summer internship at Carroll. Finally, Dr. Williams is grateful for the highly personal educational experience at Carroll in the sciences and the broad exposure to the liberal arts during his Carroll experience. He also appreciated his time in the Carroll choir with Director Mark Aamot and the philosophical perspectives provided by the January-term common courses.
Dr. Williams resides in a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife, Wendy (Magic) Williams '91, whom he met at Carroll. He and Wendy have three children. Their oldest daughter, Alissa, and her husband, Justin Whitaker, live in Colorado and are pursuing doctoral degrees in Computational Biology and Atmospheric Sciences, respectively, at Colorado State University. Their daughter, Kaitlin, followed in her parents’ footsteps by attending and graduating from Carroll in 2018. Kaitlin is married to Carroll alumnus, Nihal Studden '18, DPT '20. Kaitlin is currently pursuing a dual M.D./Ph.D. degree at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The Williams’ youngest son, Joshua, is a current Carroll student majoring in Business Economics, Philosophy, Politics, and Economics with an anticipated graduation of May 2022. His niece, Valerie Lindquist, will graduate with her bachelors in 2021 and DPT in 2023.
Finally, Dr. Williams’ brother, Bret Williams, graduated from Carroll in 1996 and subsequently obtained a Ph.D. in Biology at the University of Wisconsin.