Elizabeth A. Williams, PhD
Associate Director of Minority Affairs
, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center
Three key events shaped Elizabeth Williams' desire to choose healthcare and the elimination of health disparities as a career. The first was the premature birth of her brother Charles when she was 12 years old. Now a healthy grown man, Charles weighed only two pounds at birth. "For six weeks, I stood outside the window of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit watching him be cared for. The dedication and compassion those healthcare providers extended to my family compelled me to want to make a difference in health for others."
The other two motivating incidences both occurred at school — one was taking up for a child who was being teased, and the other involved rallying classmates together in the face of overt racial discrimination by a teacher. "These last two events clearly shaped my commitment to advocating for those otherwise mistreated."
Although Williams said she has been blessed with many outstanding teachers and mentors, her earliest role models were found pretty close to home — Drs. Charles and Hilda Williams. Her father, who holds a doctorate in anthropology, and mother, whose doctorate is in education, set a high bar for expectations. "I call them my 'towers of power,'" she said with a laugh. "They inspire me to use my life in service to others. In so many ways, they've influenced my worldview."
Following her father's professional lead, Williams has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a master's and doctorate in applied medical anthropology. In her specialty field, Williams said she is trained to take theories, concepts and ideas and turn those into real world solutions. Her professional focus has primarily centered on cancer, and her doctoral dissertation looked at the role of spirituality in African American breast cancer survivorship.
Faith also plays a prominent role in her own life. In addition to serving as an associate pastor at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, Williams is working toward her Master of Divinity degree at Vanderbilt. "It's always been a part of my makeup that spirituality is a part of this," she said. "The church," she continued, "is also an important outreach vehicle for minority communities."
Her work in eliminating health disparities keeps her focused on promoting and ensuring improved cancer screening, prevention, control and survivorship for populations of color and the medically underserved. "I have the opportunity to stand at the intersection of diverse worlds — academic, clinical and community. I also have the opportunity to try to understand what makes them work. By transferring knowledge between them, I can help to eliminate gaps in health and make health equity a reality for all communities."
Of course, that task doesn't come without significant obstacles. "One of the most challenging aspects of eliminating health disparities is that there is no single solution. Eliminating disparities requires working on multiple fronts — individual, family, community, institutional and policy levels."
Williams said there has been a paradigm shift in how thought leaders perceive health and populations. There is now a very real recognition that different social environments, biology and cultural mores impact outcomes. "As anthropologists, we look for patterns that exist in groups. Anthropology is attempting to walk in another person's moccasins. How can I serve you if I don't understand you?" she questioned.
Over the next decade, Williams would love to write a book inspiring readers to think deeply about their spirit and purpose, finish her Masters of Divinity degree, teach, travel, start a family and learn the art of glass blowing. For this anthropologist, each new skill set is a bit like learning a new language. "The more languages you know, the more groups that opens up to you."