Ernest Williams has always been fascinated by the chemistry of drugs and how they affect our bodies. At 17, Ernest left his parents and siblings in Ghana to pursue his dream of a career creating the next generation of medicines. Now working towards his PhD in chemistry at Memorial, Ernest is using computer-aided drug discovery to develop better medicines for the future.
Where are you from?
I’m from Accra, Ghana.
Where, and in what area, did you do your undergraduate or previous graduate work?
I completed my undergraduate degree at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., where I majored in chemistry (honours) and minored in math and biochemistry.
Why did you choose to pursue a graduate or post-doctoral degree?
I chose to pursue a graduate degree because I fell in love with research during my undergraduate degree. I was fortunate to work in the labs of professors Westcott, Ghandi, and Briand during my time at Mount Allison and this helped in my decision to pursue graduate school.
Why did you choose Memorial for graduate or post-doctoral studies?
I chose Memorial University primarily because I was interested in the research that was being done in the chemistry department, particularly Rowley group. St. John’s is a beautiful city and the hospitality of its inhabitants is second to none. Also, being an international student, the relatively low tuition here at MUN compared to other universities in Canada was a factor in my decision to come here.
How would you describe your experience as a graduate student at Memorial?
My experience as a graduate student at Memorial has been splendid so far. I have had the opportunity to make a lot of friends both within and outside my department. I have been to more than five conferences and have had the opportunity to present my research in all of them. I am also a member of the Memorial University Biophysics Society, which is a multidisciplinary group of researchers from the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography (Morrow, Wallin, & Yethiraj labs), Department of Biochemistry (Booth lab), and the Department of Chemistry (Merschrod and Rowley labs). We meet biweekly to discuss scientific literature and have fun. This along with other events provides a supportive environment to interact with faculty, staff, and students. I have also been involved in a number of extracurricular activities (Memorial SOS, MUN CGS, St. John’s soccer, etc.). There are ample opportunities and activities graduate students can engage in to enhance their experience while at Memorial University.
What is your degree program and area of specialization?
My current degree program is a doctorate in chemistry with a focus on computer-aided drug discovery. I am looking into how we can use computer software to develop better medicines for the future.
Why did you choose this area of study?
I am interested in the chemistry of drugs and how they do what they do in our bodies. This has fascinated me from a young age and I’ve always dreamed of a career researching the next generation of medicines. Pursuing my interests led me to choose this area of study.
What is your research/thesis about?
In my research, I use computer software to identify druggable targets in biological enzymes whose malfunction can lead to physiological disorders such as cancer and inflammation. More specifically, I am investigating the reactivity and selectivity of druggable sites in enzymes so that a given drug can elicit its maximum biological effect.
What are the implications of your research project?
Given that the development of a new pharmaceutical drug costs billions of dollars and takes over a decade to appear on our shelves, the information from my research will provide drug developers with new insights into developing more potent and efficacious drugs with less unintended side effects. It will also reduce the time and cost needed to develop these drugs.
How do you work with your supervisor? Does your work involve other students?
My supervisor, Prof. Rowley, and I have a great relationship. He is extremely supportive and determined to help his students succeed. We usually meet a few times a week to discuss research projects and update each other on how things are going. Although my work does not directly involve other students, our lab consists of a diverse group of talented undergraduate and graduate students, with whom I interact with on a daily basis.
Any recent awards/honours?
I was awarded a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship in 2017, which is an honour considering the competitive nature of this award. Recently, I was named as one of 118 exceptional young chemists by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) in celebration of the 100th anniversary of IUPAC and the international year of the periodic table of chemical elements in 2019.
Are there any difficulties in life that you’ve overcome to pursue graduate studies?
I left my parents and siblings at 17 to pursue post-secondary education miles away on a different continent. It was difficult being far away from home. Also, the climate, culture, food, and cost of living were completely different from what I was used to in the tropics. Like most international students who leave their homes and travel abroad to study, I had to overcome these hurdles and always see the bright side of things.
What are you planning to do after you complete your degree?
I plan on continuing research in medicinal chemistry and drug discovery, either in the biotechnology, pharmaceutical industry, or academic space.
Do you have any advice for current and/or future graduate students?
My advice would be to always trust and believe in yourself and your capabilities. If you have made it to graduate school, you deserve to be there and don’t let the imposter syndrome affect your work and productivity. Know why you chose to be here and don’t lose focus of that. It is also important to find other interests or hobbies outside of your work, so that you do not burn out. Be ready to accept rejection for awards, publications, or grants, but never, ever give up.