Research News

UB doctoral student receives NIH diversity award

Jamal Williams sits at his computer.

Jamal Williams is one of 18 young researchers across the U.S. selected for the NIH D-SPAN award. Photo: Sandra Kicman


Published May 25, 2021

“We said, ‘What if we did something to change the narrative about how mostly Black and brown people or LGBTQ people or women in science are perceived?’ ”
Jamal Williams, doctoral student
Department of Physiology and Biophysics

Jamal B. Williams is on his way to completing his doctorate in neuroscience in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. He is also on his way to a postdoctoral position, thanks to an award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health.

Williams learned this year that he is one of 18 young researchers across the U.S. selected for the D-SPAN award, which supports for up to six years a defined pathway across career stages for outstanding graduate students from diverse backgrounds underrepresented in neuroscience research. 

The award funds two critical phases in the training of young neuroscientists, by providing funding to facilitate completion of the doctoral dissertation and supporting the transition of talented graduate students to strong neuroscience research postdoctoral positions.

Williams is a graduate scholar in UB’s Institute for Strategic Enhancement of Educational Diversity (iSEED), which provides competitive funding to a select group of exceptional first-year students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.

“Our programs, such as iSEED, provide underrepresented students like Jamal with continuous research, career and professional development mentoring so that they are well-positioned to benefit from prestigious national awards, such as the NIH D-SPAN award,” says Margarita L. Dubocovich, senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion in the Jacobs School and SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

“We are extremely proud that Jamal is receiving this exceptional award, positioning himself as a role model at the top of the neuroscience field,” she says.

Epigenetics sparked his interest

Williams, a native of Buffalo, earned his bachelor’s degree at D’Youville College with dual degrees in mathematics and biology, and a master’s degree in biology at SUNY Buffalo State. He became interested in neuroscience when he learned about a field of study called epigenetics.

It was a manuscript published from the lab of David Dietz, professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the Jacobs School, where Williams learned about the application of epigenetics in neuroscience research.

“I learned that DNA is a template for how genes are transcribed and that epigenetics is an additional factor where genes can turn on and off without actually changing the code of DNA,” said Williams, who worked for Dietz during a lab rotation. “I thought it was fascinating that stress or drug use or aging can play a role in turning genes on and off.”

For his PhD thesis projects on Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders, Williams has been working in the laboratory of Zhen Yan, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Physiology and Biophysics. He is currently a co-author on seven manuscripts that have been published, accepted or are in submission; he also is first author on one manuscript in press, and another that will be submitted this summer.

Under Yan’s direction, he is using epigenomic, biochemical and behavioral analysis to identify and target changes in gene expression that may be causing abnormal neuronal function in Alzheimer’s disease. Epigenomics examines epigenetic modifications in the whole genome.

“My main focus is to look at how epigenetic factors change gene transcription in Alzheimer’s disease,” Williams explains. “The idea is, if we can identify what these epigenetic changes are, we can utilize already available drugs or use new ones to target abnormal epigenetic factors.”

Yan describes Williams as “an outstanding student who has been consistently dedicated to scientific research. His strong drive to make impactful discovery, paired with his exemplary work ethic, have propelled him to accomplish a lot during the predoctoral training. His self-taught bioinformatic skills particularly demonstrate the huge potential he has to develop into an independent scientist successfully,” she says.

In addition to his research interests, Williams is well aware of the distinction of his position as a Black neuroscientist and how he can leverage that position to help undergraduates who don’t typically see scientists that look like them. He was awarded an Arthur A. Schomberg fellowship at UB, which provides funding for eligible underrepresented full-time graduate students at UB, and he mentors Jacobs School students in biomedical sciences.

Amplifying unsung voices of science

When global protests erupted last year in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Williams and Megan Conrow-Graham, a fellow grad student in Yan’s lab, wanted to make their social justice contribution to the field they know best: science. “We said, ‘What if we did something to change the narrative about how mostly Black and brown people or LGBTQ people or women in science are perceived?’” Williams says.

Together, they created Reclaim the Bench, a podcast that seeks “to amplify the voices and experiences of individuals and communities throughout history to the current day who have been historically excluded, marginalized, oppressed and exploited in the fields of science and medicine.”

In its first year, the duo has posted seven podcasts, focusing on what they call the “unsung heroes.” They highlight the contributions of scientists ranging from Vivien Thomas, whose techniques are still being used today to treat what is commonly known as “blue baby syndrome,” to Dorothy Brown, the first Black woman to become a surgeon in the deep South, to an interview with author Harriet Washington about her book, “Carte Blanche: The Erosion of Medical Consent.”

Williams also is president of a science policy organization called Science Demands Action, which works to educate policymakers on scientific topics. His aim is to make science a more equitable environment, especially for underrepresented students who seek a career in science.

He recalls a line from the poet Amanda Gorman’s address during the presidential inauguration: Sometimes the path you take is the one you create. “That’s been true for me,” he says. “I was starting college, the first in my family, and I felt so out of place. I was a 23-year-old freshman with not much representation on the student side and even less on the faculty side. So, people like me had to create the path. I didn’t get the courage to do this until I was going for my PhD at UB, where I had the courage to say, ‘You know what? I have some clout.’ It gave me courage to speak out.”

He also notes how important failures are in order to finally succeed. “Before I got this award, I tried twice before and my application wasn’t even discussed. So, if you don’t succeed the first time, you have to optimize, you have to be persistent. You have to keep trying over and over again. What I’ve done looks good only because I stayed the course.”