The physics of squishy systems with LaNell Williams

This week we welcome LaNell Williams (@a_lanell) a Ph.D. student studying soft condensed matter physics (or…the physics of squishy systems) at Harvard University.  We chatted with LaNell about science, equity and donuts!

How did you end up in science?
I ended up in science after a STEM/Engineering demonstration during my senior year in high school. I had never considered science as a career path because I was deadest on being a journalist! But my curiosity was piqued and I began to explore different fields once I was in college. I eventually settled on Physics and I haven’t looked back since!

Why the physics of squishy systems?
I didn’t want to study the standard or older physics topics I had learned about. I was more interested in learning new physics and exploring new systems. Many of my colleagues seemed to be drawn to the standard fields such as particle physics, hard condensed matter, high energy, etc., but I wanted to apply my knowledge of physics to an area that’s barely been touched. For many years, physicists didn’t have the tools to study these very complex biological/squishy systems, but now we are beginning embark on new methods and new models that are beginning to assist in our understanding of the physics of nature.

What are you working on now?
I study self-assembly. Viruses are one of nature’s most dynamic and efficient self-assembled systems. Our lab specifically looks at a simple spherical virus called MS2. By studying the self-assembly of MS2 we hope to gain a better understanding of nature’s design mechanism’s for building larger more complex systems.

What do you want the public to know about your research?
The physics of life is something many scientists have pondered for years. Even better understanding viruses will assist us in learning about ourselves. Many of us share DNA with “ancient viruses” that existed centuries ago. Viruses are one of the simplest biological systems that are able to reproduce themselves (biologist do not kill me), viruses are highly dynamic, and the research that we perform in our lab can assist with questions about life and what is living (again biologist don’t kill me), our evolutionary background, and different methods that may allow us to control the assembly or creation of biological materials like viruses.

What are some of your passions outside the lab?
I tend to involve myself in efforts within my community surrounding equity and inclusion when I can. I believe that in addition to large programs, platforms and conversations it is important for some of us to be doing some of that groundwork that takes time, a bit of agitation, and lots of accountability. I currently chair the Equity and Inclusion Recruitment Committee (EIRC) in Harvard University’s Physics Department. We are in our early stages, but our plan is to attempt to be thoughtful about the things that we try to do before making claims about what we’ve accomplished within the community. This will hopefully prevent any false narratives or propaganda that may come with hype surrounding “Diversity” initiatives. Harvard is definitely not perfect, no institution or program is, but we definitely intend to try to take a more productive approach.

Can you describe the perfect day off?
That question is not workaholic friendly! But if I try really hard to not do work, I will go see a movie or go to an art museum. I love food. I am such a foodie. I will spend any amount of money on food. I am that person that will buy a $30 donut if it is delicious! I may eat packaged ramen for the rest of the week, but the experience was worth it!

LaNell Williams, welcome to RealScientists! We are thrilled to have you.


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