Hitching Her Star on Scientific Discovery

Triple Threat: Former Basketball Star and Singing Sensation Studies to Become a Scientist

Tere Williams knows how to succeed. The former professional basketball player and accomplished singer is counting on her work ethic and perseverance to serve her well as she conducts research that will lead to a Ph.D. from Einstein.

Tere Williams with her mentor, Dr. Gregoire Lauvau
Tere Williams with her mentor, Dr. Gregoire Lauvau
“Being a competitive professional athlete takes focus, dedication and occasional flashes of creativity,” said Dr. Victoria Freedman, associate dean for graduate programs in biomedical sciences at Einstein. “Tere is bringing that same level of commitment to her efforts in the lab.”

Because of her height—she is six feet tall—basketball was a natural fit. “When I was 8, my parents moved the family in the middle of the school year to a new town in North Carolina. On my first day in the new third-grade class, a girl asked me if I played basketball and if I would like to be on her team,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what basketball was, but I wasn’t going to let that keep me from taking part.”

The team consisted of the girl, whose name was Catherine Kizer, her older sisters, another girl in class named Anna Kolbinsky, and her older sister Rachel.

“We were a really close knit group,” said Ms. Williams. “Catherine, Anna and I were inseparable from that moment and have been best friends ever since.”

Ms. Williams, who until that time had dreamed of dancing, turned in her ballet slippers for basketball sneakers to join the team. It was coached by Catherine’s father, Dr. Steve Kizer, an internist and member of the faculty at the University of North Carolina.

“Dr. Kizer wasn’t just our basketball coach. He was my mentor,” she said.

Growing up with six brothers and sisters, she recalled, “My parents worked hard to provide for us, and getting individual attention was difficult.  So I leaned on my friends and their families as extra resources.”

She credits Dr. Kizer with helping her develop her love for science. “Catherine and Anna were into science, too, and we talked about how we would open a hospital together someday.” She smiles as she relates this childhood dream. “Today, Cath practices at Wake Medical in North Carolina, Anna is a nurse at Duke University, and I’ve still got my eye on the prize after a decade of distraction.”

A Detour Through Basketball

A former pro player overseas, Ms. Williams now courts success in the laboratory
A former pro player overseas, Ms. Williams now courts success in the laboratory
Ms. Williams’ basketball prowess led to a full scholarship to Virginia Tech, where she ranked second on the school’s all-time scoring list (1,750 points), played in three NCAA tournaments, was a Women’s Basketball News Service Freshman All-American and earned Associated Press All-American (honorable mention) recognition.

In 2001, she became the first Virginia Tech player to be drafted by the WNBA when the Phoenix Mercury chose her in the third round—but she didn’t make the team. She eventually pursued a professional career overseas, playing in Austria, Ecuador, Israel, Russia and Spain before retiring in 2007.

“I enjoyed traveling the world and learning the languages, but being a basketball player wasn’t my dream—it was an incredible opportunity that you just don’t say ‘no’ to,” Ms. Williams said. “In the end, I realized that I wasn’t really happy.”

Another “Stage” of Development

When she returned from oversees, Ms. Williams began performing with her uncle, Warren “Slim” Williams, a successful musician in Montreal. “I love to sing, so I thought ‘why not give it a try?” she explained.

She also collaborated with other artists and recorded an album of original music before auditioning for American Idol in 2004 and The Voice in 2010.

Although she was not selected for either show, she said, “I would absolutely do it again. It was a fun opportunity and I learned from it.”

A Return to Science

Despite her Canadian fan base, as an American citizen Ms. Williams was not permitted to stay when her work visa expired. Fortunately, a chance encounter with Dr. George James Murphy, co-director of the Center of Regenerative Medicine at Boston University, led to another career shift shortly after she returned to the United States.

“When Dr. Murphy realized I had a background in science, he invited me to his lab to show me what he was working on, and my interest was reignited,” she recalled.

Because she had been drafted before graduating from Virginia Tech, Ms. Williams returned to earn her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in 2012. She then completed its Post Baccalaureate Research and Education Program (PREP). During that time, she worked in several labs, two of which focused on immunology.

“I’m really interested in the immune system and how it works,” she said. “That’s where my passion and interests are.”

Finding Einstein

On a trip to Einstein in 2013, while dropping off a friend accepted into the graduate program, Ms. Williams’ future became clearer.

“When I looked into the research going on at Einstein, it opened my eyes to the possibilities,” she said. “It’s such a positive space for learning.”

Ms. Williams is conducting her graduate thesis research in the laboratory of Dr. Gregoire Lauvau, professor of microbiology & immunology.

“Tere is a skilled communicator and networks efficiently,” said Dr. Lauvau. “Her past experience gives her an advantage in the competitive research field.”

Now in her second year, Ms. Williams is working to understand the mechanisms that could  induce more protective and longer-lasting T-cell vaccines.

“Working in the lab is a lot like playing basketball,” she said. “Just as you can’t win every game, not every experiment is a success. It’s important to take what you learn and apply it to the next experiment.”

Ms. Williams is also helping others, by working with the Einstein Minority Student Association to organize journal club meetings for current Einstein PREP scholars and serving as a mentor to underrepresented students.

“No one gets anywhere in life without help,” she said. “An act of kindness can affect someone’s life forever.”

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. “The ability to lead a team is integral to success as a scientist,” said Dr. Freedman. “It’s one of the reasons Tere will do well.”

In fact, “I’m toying with the idea of medical school,” said Ms. Williams. “And there’s always that dream of opening a hospital.”

Posted on: Friday, June 17, 2016