Monday, September 25, 2023

The official student newspaper of Methodist Ladies' College, est. 2020

Interviews with Teachers: Dr Ben Williams (Chemistry)

Thank you very much for agreeing to participate in this interview— we look forward to your valuable insight! 😊

Why do you think chemistry should be studied in general? 

Honestly, I’m much more a molecular biologist than chemist so pontificating about the benefits of chemistry as a human endeavour may be outside my core expertise. Nevertheless, I am reminded of “Better Living Through Chemistry”, which is a variant on a DuPont slogan. It encapsulates the foundational role chemistry plays in our modern world. No chemistry, no modern world. Period. Moreover, in my opinion, education and expertise are necessary to live a rich and reflective life. In combination, these ideas make a strong case that chemistry is, indeed a subject that will edify those who invest in its study.

A student is indecisive about their VCE/IB subject choices. What is one thing you’d say to them to convince them to study Chemistry?

Now, I can speak with authority on Chemistry as a high school subject. Within the confines of a 2 year course, it is elegantly designed and provides a powerful new lens through which to see the world. Where previously one only saw a reaction or a colour or a battery, now they can understand why a reaction occurs, explain why a substance is coloured, and make an educated case for the battery chemistry that powers their device. What was previously only described superficially “the solution is blue” or barely understood “the battery just works”, now reveals a world of processes, cause and effect, that is explicable and predictable. Why stumble in the dark when you can turn on the light and see?

What or who specifically motivated you to study chemistry? Did you have a role model?

I studied Chemistry at high school and then a little at Uni before leaning into molecular biology and genetics for 20 years. So… not really a chemist (shh…). Quite seriously, I took Chemistry in Year 11 because I thought I was, like really smart and stuff… and that meant Chemistry, Physics, and 4 Unit Maths (akin to Specialist and Methods). However, I became obsessed with Chemistry as it felt like secret and powerful knowledge that was useful and allowed me to more fully engage with the world. My role models at high school were Augustus Caesar (he did quite well in life) and various authors, musicians, and artists. However, my Chemistry teacher was an amazing guy. People often speak about passionate teachers being the best, although as a student I always found “passion” to be tinsel. Nice to have but not the real stuff. I respected Mr Hristoforidis and that was everything. I still think about him from time to time, when almost all the rest have faded from memory.

By popular request, what was your PhD about? Was it a worthwhile experience?

The short version is development of vaccines for cancer. We leveraged the idea that our bodies have immune cells (T cells) that can target our own antigens (proteins). We don’t have many and they are supressed so we don’t all suffer from autoimmune diseases such as lupus. However, if we could turn on those T cells that target antigens on cancer cells, we might be able to vaccinate against that cancer. Cancer cells are our own cells gone awry so make (express) many of the same antigens; they just make a lot more than the normal cells. We (science is a team game) developed vaccines for a couple of proteins expressed by cancers, including colorectal cancer (the most glamorous of all), breast cancer, and neuroblastoma (paediatric adrenal cancer). The vaccines were remarkably effective in mice and one of these vaccines is now in human clinical trials.

It was a hugely worthwhile experience, although it was, arguably the most challenging thing I have done in my life. This is a longer conversation, so I’ll leave it at that for now. Feel free to hit me up if you wish to chat about my experience.

Students have observed that you often walk around with airpods in. What sort of music do you enjoy listening to?

My “ear pads”, as I struggle not to call them, are fairly new and I forget that I have them in when I make my way across campus. I have been a music fan since I became obsessed with experimental electronic music as a teenager. I used to spend my weekends (studying, of course), and in music stores listening to albums for hours before eagerly handing over $30- 50 of my hard earned cash for a CD. I earnt $5 an hour working in a pharmacy, so music used to be an expensive hobby. In the 30 intervening years I have embraced many genres and developed an eclectic taste, so in answer to the question “what do you listen to?” I could best respond “ how long do you have?” I have occasionally simply named the song, but that’s always unsatisfying for all. These days I listen to Spotify and have been training it, like a puppy, to fetch new and interesting music to scratch that eclectic itch. I could go on. I won’t.

Any final words to aspiring chemists out there?

Mellifluous is a good word. I also like apropos and parenthetically. Use them. They will make your life a little bit better.


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