Dionna Williams credits her love for science with broken toasters, radios and old record players.
“I wanted to know why and how things worked,” said Dr. Williams, 27, a newly-minted PhD, who successfully defended her thesis on March 25, 2014. “If I didn’t get a right answer I’d figure it out myself, which often involved breaking appliances in the house and putting them back together.”
She describes herself as a serious, but fun loving kid from Bridgeport, CT, who almost always knew what she wanted to do. And her laser-sharp focus has certainly paid off.
Investigating how HIV enters the brain
Since 2009, Dionna worked under the mentorship of Dr. Joan W. Berman, professor in the departments of pathology and microbiology and immunology, and senior academic advisor to the Graduate Division. Her lab examines the mechanisms that mediate HIV entry into the central nervous system (CNS) and how viral and inflammatory mediators damage neurons and other CNS cells.
Dionna focused her research on studying monocytes - a specific population of immune cells - that enter into the brain of HIV infected individuals and carry the virus along with them. The action triggers a cascade of neurotoxic and neuroinflammatory processes, which causes neuronal damage and loss. As a result, a large percentage of HIV-infected individuals develop cognitive abnormalities, termed HIV associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND).
“The virus gets into the brain early but the cognitive problems don’t happen until later,” said Dionna. “Some people don’t ever have any problems, but a large percent do.”
In her thesis, titled “Characterization of mechanisms that contribute to the transmigration of CD14+CD16+ monocytes across the blood brain barrier: Implications for NeuroAIDS,” Dionna characterized some of the proteins that help these monocytes enter into the brain. She also identified ways to inhibit the entry of cells into the brain, and identified a prognostic biomarker for those at risk of developing HIV associated neurocognitive disorders. [She has published three papers, with two more in preparation and two submitted for publication]
In addition to identifying three potentially new therapeutic targets, she’s achieved many great feats during her time at Einstein. In 2012, she was awarded fellowships from the United Negro College Fund/ Merck, which helped support her research and provided career development support, and from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where she worked with HAND patients, visited clinics and observed neurocognitive testing. Working with affected patients was sad, she said, but proved motivating and humbling. In her spare time, she took African dance class, and earned a black belt in Tai Kwon Do, practicing with the club in the little-known dojo, located on the fifteenth floor in the Belfer building.
Her next stop is a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She will continue her research in the lab of Dr. Janice Clements in the department of Molecular and Comparative Pathology, studying the role of macrophages in HIV.
A defining moment
Growing up in a creative family, Dionna often toyed between going into performing arts or science, but attending a unique alternative science high school was clearly her defining moment.
At The Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science & Technology Education Center (BRASTEC) she studied aquaculture and farm fishing with classmates who came from all around Southeastern Connecticut.
There, she built a wooden kayak - which she later sold - learned to take apart a boat engine, used miters and jig saws to make puzzles that she gave away as Christmas presents, and even built her own fishing pole. For her senior thesis on heavy metals in fish in the Long Island sound, she used mass spectrometry and other instruments that she later used in organic chemistry class at Hofstra, where she majored in biochemistry.
She also sold “lots and lots of candy” to help fund her field trip to South Korea.
Although aquaculture was not ultimately Dionna’s calling, the unique high school experience fostered her love for science. During her sophomore year at Hofstra, she attended a summer undergraduate research program at the University of Massachusetts, where she was paired with someone working with HIV.
“I found I loved immunology and that I really liked studying the brain,” she said.
Dionna chose Einstein for its umbrella program, and she rotated through various labs before ultimately choosing to work in Dr. Berman’s lab.
At her thesis defense party, Dr. Berman described Dionna as a “mentor’s delight. “Not only is so she so personable and easy going, but intense and appropriate. She galvanizes people to be interested and excited,” Dr. Berman added, and appropriately presented Dionna with a barometer.
Dreams of being a weather girl
That’s because since age eight, Dionna has been obsessed with the weather. If science hadn’t worked out for her, she said she would have been a weather girl.
Moving forward, Dionna hopes to stay on an academic track and to be instrumental in creating therapies to help people affected by NeuroAids.
And as a woman of color in science, she looks forward to raising awareness of the career possibilities. “It’s a unique position and one that I’m happy to have,” she said. “ I would love to inspire people regardless of ethnicity or gender, but particularly African American women in science.”
Good friends and laughter
After all, even as the lab environment nurtured her and encouraged her to focus on her scientific endeavors, Dionna’s time at Einstein was also full of fun times, good friends and lots of laughter.
“This is really where I grew up in science. The Berman lab is like a family that you love and care for. We cook for each other. I get snacks provided to me. We help each other out. Someone is always laughing.”
She said, “I’ve had a blast.”