Q&A with Rush University’s James M. Williams, PhD

James M. Williams, PhD, is a professor of anatomy and cell biology, biochemistry and internal medicine at Rush University. We asked him a few questions about his work and his experience at Rush.

Why do you love what you do?

It is a continual joy for me to see some of our students in action and learn about what experiences have brought them to this point. On the one hand we have students who come to Rush with such impressive pedigrees that it would be nearly impossible for them to fail. Others do not have the all-star pedigrees, but perform at the same high levels, and this excites me. Further, some of these students I interact with have such interesting “other” areas of their lives, time spent in the Peace Corps, opera singer, artists, etc. I suppose it comes down to this -– a reason I love what I do is the encouragement and thrill of working with some very bright young people. This does not change, either. Each year brings a new group of very talented people and I get to work them. How good can it get?

Another reason I love what I do is that it is a continuation of what I fell in love with in college. Two important things happened to me during my second year of college. I met my wife (who taught me to be a good student), and I met my academic love when I took my first course in anatomy. That was 1971, and both of those loves continue to this day.

How do you like to be a role-model and mentor to others?

This is where I would like to quote NBA star Charles Barkley and say that I am not a role model. I am not a medical doctor, so I would not presume to model for our students what it is like to be a medical doctor. What I do like to model is reflecting a style of “toning it down” or making it a looser environment in which to learn. My observation has been that with an elite group of learners, you often have people who are wound a little tight and might perform better if some of the external pressures to perform were reduced, just a bit. I have a humorous and down home style of teaching, and I am dead serious about it. I want to create an environment where we are all a bit more relaxed, which I think stimulates a good learning environment. I should note that this is a product of my own experiences as a student as well as a product of my personality. I work with several people who do this differently and do it well. I respect and affirm what they do. It is just not something I do well, so I go with what I can do.

What makes Rush education and training different?

In many ways Rush education and training is not different, and it should not be. Professional standards have to be met and are. However, there are ways where I think we are different. I have detailed some of them above. I continue to be impressed at how quickly our medical doctors jump into action when there is a crisis on the world stage. These are busy people, with families and jobs back home, but they rise to the occasion. Our students reflect almost a universal value of volunteering which really warms my soul!

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