In his office overlooking the expanding University of Rochester campus, David Williams does not have to turn far to see the reminder of his love of optics.
There, on his desk, sit two sculptures his father made, flowing pieces that capture movement as if the viewer is watching a dance. Williams’ father emphasized the connection between art and vision, and he even built his own telescope and wrote about it for a science magazine.
Now, as David Williams transitions to his new position as dean for research in arts, sciences and engineering at UR, he is applying his love of optics and expertise garnered over a career in research to use on a larger scale.
Williams plans to stress interdisciplinary and even intercollegiate research ventures to leverage the university’s strengths in a weakening funding climate, he says.
"In my own research I learned to bring my expertise in science across many disciplines, and I had a lot of experience translating that research to the market," says Williams, 58.
He came to his position last year after a career as an optics researcher, one in which he was part of breakthroughs in the treatment of eye disorders.
Williams gained fame for his advancements in adaptive optics, as part of a team that developed techniques for seeing the retina more clearly than had been possible before, down to the individual cones in the eye. Williams also developed a device that allows for more precise corrective lens prescriptions, which was named one of R&D Magazine’s top 10 inventions of 2003.
While the medical center still accounts for the largest portion of research funding at UR-$292 million of the $415.2 million in fiscal 2011-research at the River Campus is growing. Over the past five years the Warner School of Education has steadily increased its sponsored research proposals, requesting $10.4 million for fiscal 2011. The Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences also increased its research requests during the last five years, with $95.7 million in requests in 2011.
Work in optics
It was his early childhood that shaped Williams’ love of optics, a love that has remained throughout his career and still shapes his work. He recalls walking around his childhood home in Indiana, holding a prism in front of his eye and watching how the images and light filtered through.
This interest remains part of his life to this day. The Fairport resident is an avid scuba diver, having recently taken a family vacation at an island near Venezuela renowned for its diving sites. Williams says he is fascinated not only by the beauty of diving but by the technical aspects of diving and underwater sightseeing.
Though he became fascinated with optics early in his life, he did not pursue the study of optics until later in his academic career. He graduated from Denison University in Ohio in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He went on to graduate school at the University of California-San Diego, but even there he did not take optics courses in any formal way.
Instead, Williams says, he was largely self-taught, putting great time and energy into studying every aspect of the eye, from the way light entered to how the highest functions of the brain interpreted the images.
After graduate school he spent a year working with Bell Laboratories before moving to UR, where he began work as a general scientist studying how people see. Williams was interested in how the eye gives perspective on the world, and particularly why some animals, such as predatory birds, had such superior vision.
His work helped lead to the advancement of wavefront optics, which allows scientists to look into the eye with greater clarity. This also paved the way for great advances in eye surgery.
Williams, who holds 10 patents for his work, joined another UR researcher, Scott McRae M.D., to develop Lasik surgeries that could enhance eyesight beyond 20/20 in patients.
"That was big for me as a researcher," Williams says. "To realize that the research I had been working on strictly to see how well the eye could work suddenly opened up a whole new field was incredible. And I hope it was also gratifying for the taxpayers,who funded the research."
It was through this work and his position as director of the university’s Center for Visual Science that Williams gained experience working across disciplines and with corporate partners. He was teaming with scientists, engineers and doctors on the research itself and with Bausch & Lomb Inc. to develop products such as contacts that can correct vision abnormalities better than traditional lenses.
"It was such an important step that Bausch & Lomb got involved and licensed the technology from the university, because they were able to translate that into products for vision correction," Williams says.
During the work with Bausch & Lomb, Williams began to see the overall effort it took for research to be successful, how the work in the lab alone was only part of a chain of steps that ended in the marketplace. He also saw the great potential for economic development that came from research at the university.
Ian Cox, distinguished research fellow and director of the lens design group at Bausch & Lomb, says Williams was responsible for much of the expanding relationship between UR and the optics company. Cox worked with Williams starting in 1995 to investigate the applications of wavefront aberrations.
Their collaboration led to the first commercially available aberrometer, a diagnostic instrument that allows clinicians to measure ocular aberrations. Together they also developed the first commercially availablewavefront-guided Lasik procedure.
"Professor Williams has been instrumental not only in leading research directly but, in more recent years, in helping develop collaborations between other university faculty and Bausch & Lomb, broadening the co-operative research between the two institutions," Cox says.
Director of research
When the previous dean of research at the university, Paul Slattery, left the position in 2011 after 12 years of service, Williams initially had no intention of going for the job.
While he was working closely with Steve Felton, director of the Flaum Eye Institute at UR, to build the institute’s funding and patients, however, he was asked by Peter Lennie, senior vice president and dean of the faculty of arts, sciences and engineering at UR, to consider becoming the director of research.
Lennie viewed Williams as the ideal candidate. He possessed a mix of in-depth research experience and expertise in the commercialization of these developments.
"There are very few people with that mix of talents," Lennie says. "He also understands how to bring colleagues along, and is particularly invested in making sure other faculty members secure funding for their own projects."
After a bit of consideration, Williams agreed to take the position.
"I thought this would be a great opportunity to share my experience I have working with industry and especially with tech transfer," Williams says. "After a few weeks and discussion with my wife, who encouraged me, I decided it would be the right fit for me, and I’m glad I did."
Williams started by meeting with all the department leaders within arts, sciences and engineering to talk about what opportunities they saw for funding. Even though he had experience working outside of his specialty, he admits these talks were enlightening.
"Even with the collaborations I did in my work, it was still a bit siloed," Williams says. "Now I’m talking to people like geologists about how the work they’re doing will affect the future for all of us, and I’ve learned a lot about the different work everyone does here."
The research department already had been improving its infrastructure to streamline grant submissions, and in discussions with department leaders Williams spoke about how they could improve their own research processes.
To this end, Williams plans to increase the university’s grant writing capacity, taking more pressure off individual faculty members so they can focus on research projects. He also plans to widen the resources available for faculty in their research.
"It’s not just about expanding funding, but here at the university we have many others involved, like the communication department that spreads the word of the work we’re doing and the advancement team that gets fundraising dollars to support us," Williams says. "I have plans to help faculty access and work with these areas much more smoothly."
Better communication about research is important for Williams. He wants the public to be more aware of the groundbreaking research from the university, such as the development of the human papillomavirus vaccine.
He also would like faculty members to receive more recognition for their work, whether it be research in optics or a play written by an English professor.
"That’s part of my job, making sure that our faculty members are being recognized for the work they do," Williams says. "I want the University of Rochester to get its share of awards and attention for their work."
Williams acknowledges he entered his post at a challenging time for academic research. Funding from the federal government has remained stagnant the past few years, even declined in some areas, so researchers are spending more time applying and competing for grants.
"We’re finding that they’re spending more and more time just to stay at the same level," Williams says.
But the university is not without opportunities, he adds. He sees room for more partnerships with industry and for large-scale collaborations between universities. Williams points to his work in the Center for Adaptive Optics, a five-university research partnership on which he was lead investigator, as an example of this.
The increased competition for a smaller source of funds will likely lead research efforts further in the collaborative direction, Williams notes.
"That (type of partnership) is exactly the thing I think we can do more of in the United States," he says. "The era of the individual laboratory as its own fiefdom will change to a more collaborative one, but that’s not to say that type of lab is bad or should go away entirely."
Williams also sees some specific areas where UR could grow its research efforts. One is energy and conservation efforts, especially finding ways to make the world more sustainable for its 7 billion inhabitants.
The other area of growth is what Williams terms "big data." This is the quest to take all the information that has become available in the past few decades via the Internet and organize it in a way scientists and researchers can use. He points to Google and its ability to predict health and societal trends as an example.
"Scientists have learned that just by following trends of people searching for flu symptoms in Google they can predict where the next outbreaks will occur much more quickly and accurately than medicine could tell them," Williams says.
UR is well-positioned to carry out this type of research, Williams says. President Joel Seligman’s position as co-chairman of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council puts UR in a leadership position and could lead to partnerships with other regional organizations, he adds.
Williams says he is optimistic about the future of research at UR, that as disciplines continue to increase their level of collaboration, the university will see breakthroughs like what he had in his own work.
"It’s incredible to think that astronomers are using the same kind of adaptive optics to see into space that we use to see rods and cones in the eye," Williams says. "It’s amazing, the things that are possible when you pull your head out of the sand and see what can be done."
Position: Dean for research in arts, sciences and engineering at the University of Rochester
Education: B.S. in psychology, Denison University, Granville, Ohio, 1975; Ph.D. in psychology, University of California-San Diego, 1979
Family: Wife Inger, daughter Erika, son Kristoffer
Activities: Scuba diving, gardening
Quote: "That was big for me as a researcher. To realize that the research I had been working on strictly to see how well the eye could work suddenly opened up a whole new field was incredible. And I hope it was also gratifying for the taxpayers, who funded the research."
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