The Art of Making Life-Changing DecisionsDr. R Sanders Williams discusses the importance of the decisions he made as a young student.
So much in life revolves around making tough decisions, determining the right path for oneself at a crossroads. Fortunately, on Thursday Physician-scientist and healthcare leader Dr. Sanders (“Sandy”) Williams spoke to us about his inspiring story and careers, as well as how he made the decisions that led him through the chapters in his life.
One important decision Dr. Williams made was in his junior year. He started college as a Public Policy major pursuing nuclear disarmament law and policy, aiming to help bring world peace. But in junior year, Dr. Williams took a biology course around the same time that America was experiencing the “dawn” of molecular biology research. He learned about unique single-cell creatures called “slime molds” that merge together to reproduce and sacrifice themselves when malnourished (these actually live in the Duke Forest!), and as he became more and more fascinated by molecular biology, he also began to change his mind about future careers; he was going to have to choose between law and medicine.
He had spent years planning for a career in law, while he had very few STEM resources and mentors. He had scored very well on the LSATs, while he had not yet taken the MCATs. But his biology class that junior year had shown him something he enjoyed quite unexpectedly.
So despite the fact that he had spent so long working towards a career in law, Dr. Williams took the path that fascinated him more and decided on research and medicine.
And this decision has served the world well.
He spent a decade practicing cardiology in the clinic and two more decades focusing on research into the impact of endurance exercise and gene regulators on heart health, especially after a heart attack. After being appointed to Duke School of Medicine’s Dean, Dr. Williams used his undergraduate public policy skills to establish Duke’s medical school in Singapore, extending Duke’s healthcare impact beyond the US borders.
Now, as a chair on biotech and healthcare corporations such as Amgen and Gladstone, Dr. Williams continues to save lives, making a whole new type of impact that he sees can reach across entire populations of people at a time. One day, another significant decision arose in the form of Dr. Jeong visiting the company with an idea to treat melanoma. The idea had been turned down by everyone else Dr. Jeong had visited, but Dr. Williams saw potential.
Dr. William evaluated all considerations and decided that no matter how unlikely the idea may have sounded to others, he used his position to fund and support the project. His decision made a brilliant idea possible, and the support helped Dr. Jeong’s idea develop into Ipilimumab, the immunotherapy drug that melts melanoma for about a quarter of today’s melanoma patients. As Ipilimumab got approved by the FDA, more and more treatments promoted the immune system to target and attack cancer cells; developments such as Ipilimumab helped encourage the rise of Immuno-Oncology. Dr. Williams’s decision and advocacy in what he believed, had given way to life-saving innovation.
Today, Dr. Williams continues to impact decisions in healthcare companies, while also inspiring scientists, physicians, and college students like us who want to make a difference through healthcare, research, policy, and more.
When we asked him how we should go about making tough life decisions like the ones he has been faced with in the past, he replied that the right decision is often the one that pursues a more challenging and fascinating path because it will usually land us somewhere we love, studying something we love. He advises that when we have a decision to make and one seems easier while another seems difficult but so much more fascinating, we should get up and “climb the mountain”.
Grace Wei, Huang Fellow ’24
Grace is a freshman from Berkeley, California, hoping to pursue a major in Neuroscience with potential minors in Computational Biology and Environmental Studies.