Ph.D. from Tech gave professor the confidence to dream big and succeed
Oct 20, 2017 | Atlanta, GA
When supporting Georgia’s major collegiate sports teams, Phillip L. Williams has all his bases covered.
Williams, who hails from Decatur, Georgia, received his B.S. in biological sciences and chemistry from Georgia State University in 1975 and a Ph.D. in applied biology from Georgia Tech in 1988. He is the founding dean and Georgia Power Professor of Environmental Health in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia (UGA).
Those last two academic institutions can cause Williams problems during the fall. After all, the University of Georgia is memorably name-checked in Georgia Tech’s fight song:
But if I had a son, sir, I'll tell you what he'd do—
He would yell, ‘To hell with Georgia!' like his daddy used to do.
Williams navigates diplomatically around the 127-year-old Georgia/Georgia Tech rivalry, known to fans as a Clean Old-Fashioned Hate. “My colleagues at UGA say I always side with Tech, and my Tech friends say I always favor UGA,” he says. “I guess this is because I think highly of both schools and speak positively about both of them, even if the background conversations reflect some traditional hostilities.”
Studying Toxicology, Gaining Confidence
Williams now watches games from home or from Sanford Stadium, in Athens. But in the 1980s, he spent fall weekends doing research for his doctorate. Sometimes the Georgia Tech band marched by his Cherry Emerson lab on the way to Bobby Dodd Stadium for Yellow Jacket games.
“I would think about how much fun people were having and that someday I would be in the stadium as well,” he says. Most of the time, he could only listen to the game on the radio as he worked.
In 1978, Williams joined Georgia Tech as a research technologist at the Engineering Experimental Station, now known as Georgia Tech Research Institute. While there, he realized he would need advanced training to conduct the kind of independent research that interested him. Williams went to Tech for his Ph.D. because of Tech’s reputation.
The biology program at Tech at the time was still small, he recalls. But “the faculty was distinguished and was willing to let me pursue my interest in toxicology.” Once he was in the program, it became clear that the School of Biology’s approach was much more quantitative than other institutions’, and it was intimidating at times, he says.
“My experience at Tech strengthened my confidence,” Williams says. “I realized that I could compete with some of the best students in the nation and that I had the option to pursue new areas of expertise. Later I found that I could compete with or collaborate with the best people in my profession.”
Benefits and Dangers of Chemicals
Williams turned to toxicology because he enjoyed understanding how chemicals could be helpful, such as medicines, or harmful, such as environmental pollutants.
“Some chemicals are solely harmful; they have no beneficial use for human health,” he says. “Others at certain exposures are either not harmful or may even help human health, but at higher exposures are harmful to people. Using that understanding to set human exposure limits to prevent adverse effects in exposed populations was an interesting challenge that I still enjoy studying.”
Williams’ professional stature and reputation grew. He established and continues to serve as senior editor of “Principles of Toxicology,” a popular three-volume guide to the field written and valued by experts around the world. He considers this accomplishment one of the most satisfying in his professional life.
Advice to Students
Another career highlight for Williams is the creation in 2005 of the UGA College of Public Health, where he serves as founding dean. “It is very rewarding to have established a college starting with 12 faculty members and to have seen it grow in the past 12 years to more than 900 students and 200 faculty and staff. We have a robust research agenda.”
Williams says the feat would have been difficult to achieve without his Tech training, which emphasized collaboration. As he learned from Tech, with its reputation as a demanding research institution, “the outcome is worth the difficulty.”
Many people he knew at Tech were just glad to graduate, Williams recalls. “It is hard to anticipate positive outcomes when you are in the thick of competing academically,” he reminds current Tech students. “But as the value of a Tech education becomes obvious through your successful careers, your fondness for Tech will grow. Over time you will realize how unique Tech is and how enabling it can be.”