An interview with ... Graham Williams, the new Society President
Amir Sam | Society News
The Society’s new President, Professor Graham Williams, began his term of office at the recent Society for Endocrinology BES conference. He has been a leading contributor to the Society’s success, most recently as Treasurer (2010–2015). Here, Graham talks to Amir Sam about his life inside and outside endocrinology, and what he is looking forward to during his time as President.
WHO WERE YOUR EARLIEST MENTORS?
My primary school headmaster always said, ‘Whatever talent you have, you must make the most of it.’ That was the first thing that really struck me.
At secondary school, I was influenced by two important people. The first was my French teacher, who also coached football. I was captain of the school team and he instilled in me a lot of things about discipline, perseverance and leadership. The second was my chemistry master, who got me interested in chemistry and laid the foundations for my fascination with science.
However, I think my parents were the biggest influence of all. They had a very liberal attitude, and strongly encouraged me to follow whichever path I wanted. They were endlessly supportive.
'I think my parents were the biggest influence of all. They had a very liberal attitude, and strongly encouraged me to follow whichever path I wanted. They were endlessly supportive'
TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR PARENTS…
My father was orphaned at a young age and left school when he was 14 to work in his uncle’s bakery in Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire. He later got a job as an articled clerk in an accountant’s office, and worked his way up to become a senior partner in a large international accountancy firm.
My mother’s mother was the daughter of a gardener on the Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire. She worked in a cotton mill and married a steeplejack from Huddersfield. They moved to Blackpool, where my mum was born. My mother worked as a secretary in a local firm of solicitors.
My mum and dad never had the chance of further education, so I was extremely fortunate that they gave me every possible opportunity and encouragement as I grew up.
WHAT LED YOU TO A CAREER IN MEDICINE?
Medicine was never a calling that I had particularly considered. Like all boys growing up in Manchester, I wanted to be a professional footballer but, unlike most footballers, I was good at languages! I also liked to construct and develop arguments, so I was initially attracted to law and wanted to be a barrister.
However, my father specialised in assessment of damages and compensation. He spent a lot of time in London giving evidence in fraud and personal injury cases. Ultimately, I felt I wanted to pursue something completely different and so, around the time of my A-levels, I moved into the sciences.
This was perhaps because it was more of a challenge, and also because the job prospects at that time were better. In the end, I felt that medicine would allow me to keep my options open as much as possible in science. Really though, I was driven by discovery and originality.
WHO INFLUENCED YOU MOST AT MEDICAL SCHOOL?
'I felt that medicine would allow me to keep my options open as much as possible in science. Really though, I was driven by discovery and originality'
I went to St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School in London and had a fantastic time in a small year of 60 students with a great family atmosphere of camaraderie. I did a BSc in anatomy, and the professor of the department, Michael Day, along with Marion Kendall in the histopathology department, were the first to get me really interested in research. I worked with them on the ultrastructure of the ureter in the wild starling and published my first paper while a medical student.
SO WHAT DREW YOU TO ENDOCRINOLOGY?
When I qualified from medical school I was all set to do surgery, but realised pretty quickly that I did not have the dexterity to be any good. My first house job was in endocrinology at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham with David London. At the time, there were some really fascinating cases, and working with him got me enthused and hooked on endocrinology straight away. He definitely had the biggest influence on my choice of career.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR TRAINING AND EARLY CAREER…
I worked as a Senior House Officer in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, and did my general medicine rotation at the Queen Elizabeth and Birmingham General Teaching Hospitals. I then got an MRC Training Fellowship with Michael Sheppard and Jayne Franklyn in Birmingham to work on thyroid hormones. I did a year of my PhD there and completed it at Harvard Medical School with Reed Larsen and Greg Brent at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, USA, where I also did some of my post-doctoral training.
I came back with an MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship to be a lecturer in Birmingham, where I had a completely empty lab and had to start from nothing! About 6 months before I left Boston, I had a meeting with Reed, who was very happy to support me, but said that I shouldn’t work on the same subject as him, because it was too small a field and I needed to develop my independence. He urged me to read the literature and find a new area to pursue.
I had been working on the biochemistry of transcriptional activation by thyroid hormone and retinoid X receptors, and wanted to apply the basic science to clinically and physiologically important questions. I decided to find a relevant thyroid hormone responsive target tissue that wasn’t being studied. Most people were working on pituitary, heart and liver, and other labs were getting into the brain.
I spent a lot of time talking to a range of people, and eventually settled on the skeleton, a clearly important target organ that had not been investigated in the context of thyroid hormones in any detail. Having not known anything about bone, I had a blank canvas and started from scratch! In 1995, I was approached by Raj Thakker and James Scott to move to the Hammersmith Hospital in London as a senior lecturer.
IS HERE A PAPER THAT YOU ARE PARTICULARLY PROUD OF?
When I moved to the Hammersmith Hospital, I had to set up the lab and the administrative burdens were getting bigger. However, I was determined to work at the bench and publish something on my own before having to focus more on lab supervision. Eventually, in 2000, I published a single author paper in Molecular & Cellular Biology (20 8329–8342) entitled ‘Cloning and characterization of two novel thyroid hormone receptor β isoforms’.
AS TREASURER AND NOW PRESIDENT, YOU WILL OVERSEE MORE THAN A DECADE OF DEVELOPMENT AT THE SOCIETY. WHAT HAS BEEN AND WILL BE THE BIGGEST CHANGES?
The financial aspect of the Society has substantially increased over time. When I became Treasurer, the gift aid to the Society from Bioscientifica was around £100,000 per year, while by the end of my term it had grown to about £1 million per annum. The Society has grown incredibly in terms of its diversity; it is reaching out further to different countries and continents in a way that was never possible previously. It is now a very professional and superbly run organisation.
I don’t think my plans for the future will be to fix anything in particular, because I believe the Society is functioning extremely well. We have a greatly increased role in education and the development of opportunities for young endocrinologists. We need to develop the Society further along these lines for the benefit of the next generation. We must support our younger scientists and clinicians, retain them and hopefully attract more people to the discipline, with the ultimate aim of benefiting our patients and endocrine science. We also need to strengthen our international collaborations, both scientifically and clinically.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR INTERESTS OUTSIDE ENDOCRINOLOGY?
I like to be active and am a keen sportsman. I have spent a lot of time walking and scrambling in the Lake District. I used to go there with my brother and for family holidays, and still enjoy fell-walking there and in Scotland whenever I get the chance.
I have been a very keen footballer all my life and played to a good standard until my mid-40s, when the inevitable knee injury and cartilage surgery ended my deteriorating career! My family have been Manchester United supporters for ever and my dad bought season tickets at Old Trafford just after the World Cup in 1967. My greatest hero was George Best and the memories of watching him play every week are still very vivid today – there is simply no one to touch him and I doubt there ever will be.
On holiday, when my son was about 8 years old, we played crazy golf and he became obsessed with the game! He subsequently had golf lessons and we found out he was pretty talented, and they encouraged him to join a proper club. So we both joined at Ealing together: he ended up playing county golf for Middlesex and now plays at university and for a club in Cornwall, while I play competitively as well.
I also cycle to work every day and have done so for over 15 years, although it is strictly commuting and I am not a recreational cyclist. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I am an appalling swimmer, and so water sports are a real no-no for me!
CAN YOU RECOMMEND A GOOD BOOK?
'Always try to find a way to say yes to help other people; that attitude will always stand you in good stead'
I have always read a lot, especially novels that deal with social commentary and tell a good story; John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Émile Zola have been particular favourites. My current interest is in police procedural novels. There is a superb series of ten books by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö about a Swedish detective called Martin Beck. They are set in the 1970s in the context of policing in Stockholm at the time of political unrest and the Cold War. I’ve been captivated by their realism and the economical way in which they are written. They’re absolutely superb and highly recommended!
DOES YOUR FAMILY SHARE YOUR INTERESTS?
My wife, Shirley, comes from Birmingham. She was the sister on the coronary care unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, so we met at work in the classical way. Her parents are both Scottish: her mum is from Fife and her dad from Edinburgh. She loves tennis and plays for a local club and she enjoys swimming – but she really does not like football! My son, Edward, is at Falmouth University studying product design and enjoying the outdoor life in the South West. As I mentioned, we share a love of golf. My older brother was a very keen rock climber and has worked in various outdoor pursuits shops. He is now a manager in a store in Manchester. My younger sister is a practice nurse in Oxfordshire.
FINALLY, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE A YOUNG ENDOCRINOLOGIST?
First, don’t be daunted by any question. Most things can be achieved, so if you really want to do something don’t be put off, just go for it – you need to be ‘on a mission’! Make use of your ingenuity and persistence, and work hard.
Secondly, don’t waste time doing bad research! Reed Larsen always used to say, ‘I can never understand why people do bad research because there is never enough time to do good research.’ The real message here is to think hard about what you do and who to do it with. Planning and preparation are really very important and essential for success.
Lastly, always try to find a way to say yes to help other people; that attitude will always stand you in good stead.
Graham Williams was interviewed by Amir Sam, Associate Editor of The Endocrinologist.