Teresa Williams is fashionable, upbeat, and can synthesize almost any chemical compound in a lab. This month, she is reflecting on two big moments in her life: her 40th birthday and completing her doctoral studies in Applied Science and Technology (AS&T) at UC Berkeley.
At the end of 2017, she’ll also celebrate ten years of service working for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). Amidst her work to complete her dissertation and her birthday plans with out-of-town friends, she took some time to have a cup of coffee with me, sharing her challenges and triumphs as a woman who fell in love with chemistry and persevered through her education despite some personal struggles along the way.
A bay area native, Teresa was raised by her mother, who encouraged her to consider a wide variety of career paths beyond those subjects she’d been focused on: dance and French. At home, Teresa was a whiz in the kitchen, and enjoyed experimenting with and modifying recipes. Then, while attending Solano Community College, she took a general chemistry class, taught by Christine (Kress) Ducoing, which inspired her to pursue this field of study. Teresa explained, “That was my first time seeing a woman as a scientist, because all of my science teachers in high school were men.” Interacting with this passionate female chemist helped her consider what it might look like to become one herself.
A quick glance at Teresa’s resume explains the rest: after community college, she transferred to UC Davis to complete her B.S. in Chemistry in 2001, and then worked for six and a half years at Chiron/Novartis in Emeryville as a medicinal chemist. Personally, however, her story was more complex. During her undergraduate studies, Teresa married her longtime boyfriend, and envisioned a happy life together. After transferring to UC Davis, her husband became abusive, and she struggled to concentrate on her education while deciding how to proceed. This negatively impacted her grades, and she focused her efforts on staying safe and finding a job to support herself as soon as possible. Through it all, she found solace in the lab, both during school and once she entered the workforce. And ultimately, she found the strength she needed to end the unhealthy relationship and focus on her future.
At Novartis she worked with Dr. Ron Zuckermann, who eventually accepted a job at the Molecular Foundry, a Department of Energy-funded nanoscience research facility at Berkeley Lab. Through Ron, Teresa learned about an open position to work with Dr. Brett Helms at the same facility, and he proved to be a great mentor, encouraging her creativity from the very beginning. A few years into this job, she began considering the pursuit of graduate studies. She remembers “sitting in on project meetings with Brett and our collaborators, where I was the one in the lab making the materials, yet I was also the only person without a Ph.D.… I became really frustrated, because I didn’t understand the science, and that was when I really felt that being without a Ph.D. was impacting how I wanted to contribute to the job.” In 2010, she had nine years of professional experience and was considering taking her career to the next level by furthering her education. During that time, she had also found and married a new partner, starting anew. They settled down, bought a house together, and planned for the future, including starting a family.
At this point, Brett connected her with Dr. Ting Xu, an Associate Professor of Chemistry and of Materials Science and Engineering at UC Berkeley who invited Teresa to audit her graduate course entitled “Polymer Surfaces and Interfaces.” This course helped Teresa understand the fundamental principles behind the polymer chemistry she’d been involved in for years, providing context for the lab protocols she was already well-versed in. Around this time, Teresa read an article in Today at Berkeley Lab about how another Lab employee, Dr. Alison Killilea, had used a tuition assistance program to fund her doctoral studies, and so Teresa submitted an application to the AS&T program at UC Berkeley that same year. “I could go into the lab and make any material, but I thought, maybe if I truly understood what was going on with the chemistry I’m doing, and what we’re trying to use these materials for, that I could come up with some ideas of my own.” She began her studies in 2011, with Ting as her faculty adviser at UC Berkeley, and Brett as her supervisor at Berkeley Lab.
Her personal life threatened to derail her career goals yet again. Around the time she began her graduate studies, Teresa’s husband shifted his stance and advised her to quit school, “because it was a huge distraction in our relationship.” But she had worked hard to recover from the first relationship that had threatened her undergraduate studies, and she valued the pursuit of her graduate education. She said, “I remember starting graduate school at 34, and thinking about how that would impact starting a family… and then my marriage ended during my first year.”
During her time in graduate school, Teresa sometimes felt a bit isolated as an older student at a different stage in her personal life while pursuing her doctorate. She also remained a Berkeley Lab employee, and was thus working full-time at the Molecular Foundry with Brett while studying at UC Berkeley. Building strong relationships with other students, such as Sibel Leblebici, MSE PhD 2016, helped her learn how to navigate courses, find work-life balance, and stay focused. Sibel, who was one year ahead of her in school and eleven years younger in age, is still one of Teresa’s closest friends. Mentors also played a big role in supporting Teresa’s efforts — Professors Ronald Gronsky and David Attwood were instrumental in making her feel welcome in the AS&T program.
Teresa is nearing the end of this chapter in her life, and she’s currently writing her dissertation, where she is developing new chemistries and electron imaging techniques for assembling of colloidal nanocrystals into mesoporous frameworks. She has re-invented herself numerous times, made a name for herself professionally (including multiple patents and invited manuscripts, and served as a mentor both to young researchers and through outreach programs such as TechWomen. She has focused on developing herself as a strong female scientist, like that teacher who inspired her 20 years ago. “Going through all of this, the lab has been consistently my safe place, my happy place, and something I’ve been able to count on,” she said. In the lab, she can create, she can experiment, and she can focus. It’s the place she can truly be herself.
Photos © 2017 The Regents of the University of California, through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.