Jeffrey Williams – A tribute

Published on 14 February 2022

Jeffrey Williams, world-leading expert on cell differentiation and a member of the division of Cell and Developmental Biology for 18 years until his retirement in 2016, died in January 2022.

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Jeff was well known and highly respected world-wide for his influential work on the molecular control of cell differentiation in the social amoebae Dictyostelium discoideum. During his career, he published 178 articles.

Key research highlights included characterisation of different cell types at the molecular level. This was via the identification of cell type specific genes and through analysis of their promoters. This included characterising the role of major classes of transcription factors (Stats, bZIP) that control cell type differentiation. Jeff also made key contributions to understanding the signal transduction pathways involved.  

Jeff was a driving force of the UK arm of the international Dictyostelium genome sequencing project and the Japanese cDNA sequencing project right at the beginning of the sequencing era. 

Jeff was also known for his love of playing sport (squash, tennis, skiing, hiking, golf, ice skating) and music (modern and folk guitar). He often performed at School events. 

Colleagues and collaborators will remember Jeff as a fantastic researcher, an immensely kind, generous, supportive colleague, and a great mentor for young researchers. 

Scientific career 

Jeff’s long and productive scientific career began in the 1970s and illustrates the vast number of changes in life science research techniques and questions. 

Originally from Wales, Jeff obtained a first-class BSc Hons at Kings College, London. He then pursued a PhD in Zoology at University College, London, and Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), which he completed in 1973. 

He moved to the United States to undertake his first postdoctoral position. He worked in the laboratory of Sheldon Penman at MIT from 1973 to 1975. Sheldon Penman was a pioneering cell biologist working in the new field of molecular biology. Jeff studied RNA structure and function. His research from this time resulted in four seminal publications. 

Jeff returned to the UK in 1975, where he established his own independent research lab at Clare Hall laboratories, ICRF. He was one of the few UK experts in molecular biology at the time, especially in DNA and cDNA library construction. It was at Clare Hall where Jeff started to work on the social amoebae Dictyostelium discoideum and established collaborations with Julian Gross and Rob Kay. 

Several postdocs from his lab during that time progressed to independent group leader positions (Roger Patient at the Weatherall Institute at Oxford University, Philip Mason at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania). In 1991, he was elected as an EMBO Fellow.  

In 1994, Jeff moved to UCL as the Jodrell Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. In the Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, he worked alongside researchers that included Alan Hall and Martin Raff. During this period, his work produced significant new insights into STAT proteins. Jeff and his team identified STATs in Dictostelium important in cell type differentiation, characterised their function by deletion analysis in mutants, determined the crystal structure of the STAT Dimer and elucidated the signal transduction pathways for STAT activation. 

In 1998, Jeff moved to Dundee. He became a Wellcome Trust Principal Investigator and assumed the position of Head of the Division of Cell and Developmental Biology. While in Dundee, his significant contributions to science were further recognised: He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (2001) and won the BSDB Waddington Medal (2004). In 2016 Jeff retired as Leverhulme Emeritus University Professor. 

During his career Jeff mentored many young researchers who now work all over the world. They include:  

  • Roger Patient (Developmental. Genetics, Weatherall Institute, University of Oxford),  
  • Philip Mason (The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania), 
  • Adrian Tsang (Concordia University, Montreal), 
  • Adrian Harwood (Cardiff University), 
  • Robert Insall (Beatson Institute for Cancer Research, Glasgow) 
  • Catherine Pears (Dept. Biochemistry, University of Oxford),  
  • Rebecca Ginger (Unilever) 
  • Tomoaki Abe (Ishinomaki Senshu University, Japan),  
  • Takefumi Kawata (Toho University, Tokyo), 
  • Masashi Fukuzawa (Hirosaki University, Japan), 
  • Tsuyoshi Araki (Sophia University, Tokyo),  
  • Yoko Yamada (Sophia University, Tokyo).

Jeff served on editorial boards (Development, Trends in Cell Biology, Technique, PLOS One) and committees such as BSDB committee, MRC (Medical Research Council) Board, Wellcome Trust Board, Cancer Research Campaign research committee and the Royal Society of Edinburgh sectional committee. 

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