Black History 365: Charleese Williams

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Georgia State Neuroscience Undergrad Recognized as Rising Black Scientist

by Horace Holloman III 

Neuroscience student Charleese Williams remembers the anxiety she felt last summer as she prepared to present research at a conference. Standing at the podium, in front of an audience of 60 people, her nerves got the better of her.

“I froze and I had a panic attack in front of everyone,” Williams said. “I remember just shaking. It was really rough.”

Williams, a junior, said she’s worked hard to overcome her anxiety. And today, she’s feeling a sense of affirmation after recently being named the 2021 Rising Black Scientist in the undergraduate category by the scientific journal Cell Press.

The award is meant to break down barriers and create opportunities for minority students by providing funds to support professional development.

In her winning essay, Williams reflects on trying to be a role model for her 4-year-old twin sisters.

“They look at their little anatomy books with adoration and think of me as a scientist,” Williams wrote. “I look down at them, and I feel like one. Then, I look up at the scientists around me, and I don’t. I’ve never been one to take heed in any stereotypes, but they loom over me constantly in my professional journey.”

Williams will receive a cash award from the journal and scientific supplies from Cell Signaling Technology to support her education.

A graduate of Grayson High School, Williams works as a research assistant in the lab of Dan Cox, director of Georgia State University’s Neuroscience Institute. The Cox lab’s research involves studying sensory systems in fruit flies.

Williams often spends her day in the lab on precision work, such as sorting male flies from female flies for reproduction and placing larvae on a cold metal plate or rubbing a small brush against their backs to observe and record their reactions.

“I was so happy when Dr. Cox said I could join the lab,” Williams said. “A lot of people don’t know the extent that scientists are pushing the borders of our knowledge and I want to be a part of that community and contribute to the field of neuroscience.”

Cox said it’s unusual for an undergraduate student to be as engaged in research as Williams is. Reading her essay reinforced the importance of training a new generation of scientists from all backgrounds, he said.

“It reminded me why I love my career and why I relish supporting and mentoring talented young minds who, through their daily actions, large and small, make the world a better place,” Cox said.

Williams, who also serves on the Neuroscience Institute’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, hopes to create a science-based media platform for younger children of marginalized groups so they can see themselves represented in scientific fields.

“Creating safe spaces and support systems for members of the scientific community and the younger generation, as well as consistently framing my thinking in a socially conscious way, are my ultimate goals, no matter what specific area of research I decide to focus on,” Williams said.

— Portrait by Melanie Fan