Colorado State University today bestowed its highest honor on a renowned research scientist whose work in organic chemistry has led to the development of important antibiotics and anti-tumor drugs.
Chemistry Professor Robert Williams was named University Distinguished Professor, an honor reserved for only 12 faculty who have achieved national and international distinction in their academic careers.
In a ceremony during the university’s annual Celebrate Colorado State Luncheon today, President Albert Yates named Williams as the 12th faculty member to hold the honor.
"As the newest University Distinguished Professor, Dr. Williams embodies the outstanding research, leadership and commitment to excellence that forms the foundation of Colorado State University," Yates said.
For more than 20 years, Williams has carried out a rigorous, internationally renowned research program to study how and why specific molecules are biologically active, such as those found in plants, microorganisms and marine organisms, and to exploit that knowledge to make other molecules that will have similar or better biological activity.
The first major accomplishment of Williams, who joined Colorado State in 1980, came in 1984, when he completed the total synthesis of bicyclomycin, an important antibiotic. Other important findings followed, including discovering a novel mechanism that was responsible for the potent, anti-tumor activity of certain cancer-fighting compounds. He also has done research in the synthesis of specific amino acids that are primary building blocks for peptide-based drugs used in the treatment of HIV, and, with researchers at Washington State University, he’s made recent, notable contributions in elucidating the biosynthetic route to taxol, an anti-tumor drug that comes primarily from Pacific and European yews.
"Our objective is to fully exploit taxol biosynthesis at the molecular and genetic levels so we can create a recombinant organism that can produce taxol directly without having to harvest yews," Williams said. "My research program heavily relies on molecular carpentry – we figure out how medicinally important agents work so we can mimic those natural processes using the tools of synthesis."
"Bob’s research career has been extraordinarily productive," said Tom Sneider, interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences. "His research lies at the interface of organic chemistry, microbiology, biochemistry and molecular biology, and that kind of interdisciplinary activity has really driven his research and enabled him to become more productive than if he’d focused only on one approach to research.
"He’s also brought in impressive external support, predominately from the National Institutes of Health – you don’t receive consistent funding as Bob Williams has all these years without being at the top of your field. His stature in the field is very high."
Over the course of his career at the university, Williams has brought in about $10.6 million in external funding, including indirect costs.
Williams’ research has been featured in Chemical and Engineering News, the premiere trade magazine in chemistry and chemical engineering. He was recognized this year with the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award given by the American Chemical Society to honor outstanding contributions and achievements in synthetic organic chemistry. He also is past recipient of fellowships from the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science and from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He is member of the editorial boards for Chemistry and Biology and for Tetrahedron, co-editor for the Organic Chemistry Series and has published scores of articles and papers.
"In addition to his research prowess, Bob is very interested in the undergraduate program and has spent considerable time redesigning the program to better integrate the lab and lecture components," said Michael Elliott, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry.
"I love watching students become adult scientists," Williams said. "Seeing their personal growth is incredibly fun. By the time they’re done here, they’re ready to take on the world, and that’s very satisfying.
"I’ve been happy over the years with the high quality of students – they’re motivated, sincere, honest and a lot of fun to work with."
Outside the classroom, Williams was a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Microcide Pharmaceutical in California from 1993-98 and is a founding scientist and member of the Scientific Advisory Board and the board of directors of Xcyte Therapies in Seattle, Wash.
When Williams wants to change gears from research and teaching, he plays lead guitar in a rock band that performs locally. He also enjoys skiing, snowshoeing, bicycling, sailing, woodworking and other pursuits.
He is member of the American Chemical Society, Japan Antibiotics Research Association, International Society of Heterocyclic Chemistry and Phi Beta Kappa.
Williams was born in New York in 1953 and received a bachelor’s chemistry in 1975. He then moved to Cambridge, Mass., and earned a doctorate in organic chemistry in 1979 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University for a year before joining Colorado State in 1980.
He and his wife, Jill, are parents of a 13-month-old son, Ridge.