Mickey Williams’ Lifelong Love for Science Enters Emeritus Era

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; photos by Samuel Lopez
A seated man

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on the Frederick National Laboratory website.

Mickey Williams, Ph.D., jokes that he was “somewhat doomed to become a molecular biologist” from the very start, born within mere hours of a milestone in the field.

The same day in 1953 that Francis Crick and James Watson heralded their discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure — “the secret of life,” Crick triumphantly called it at The Eagle pub in Cambridge—Williams’ own life began in a maternity ward half a world away.

Williams tells the anecdote with the same humor and passion he has carried through much of his lifelong scientific journey, a journey that’s entering a new phase. On February 1, he retired from his position as founding director of the Molecular Characterization Laboratory at Frederick National Laboratory and became a scientist emeritus.

‘The Most Impactful Job’

He came to Frederick National Laboratory in 2010 at the encouragement of collaborators at the National Cancer Institute, particularly Louis Staudt, M.D., Ph.D., who felt that Williams could excel in the public science sector. He’d spent much of the prior 20 years working in the biotechnology industry.

At FNL, Williams was tasked with getting the Molecular Characterization Laboratory — “MoCha,” as it came to be known—up and running. He and colleagues at FNL and NCI quickly grew it into a robust center for molecular biology, the study of the role of molecules in biological functions.

“This has been the best, most enjoyable, and—I think—the most impactful job and opportunity I’ve ever had,” Williams said.

Today, MoCha encompasses clinical and research laboratories, conducts extensive genomic sequencing for preclinical and clinical studies run by NCI, and plays an integral role in numerous high-profile projects.

“Our group is involved in multiple precision medicine national studies, and again, the group that we’ve built is just phenomenal,” Williams said. “It has been an honor to support the efforts of [NCI’s Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis] and leaders like Drs. Jim Doroshow, Barbara Conley, Lyndsay Harris, and their teams.”

Williams is proud of MoCha’s many accomplishments. One of his favorites is its role as the central genomics laboratory in the landmark NCI-MATCH precision medicine trial, which demonstrated that some cancer drugs targeted against a specific mutation in one cancer could affect other cancers with the same mutation. That was a defining moment for both genomic sequencing and precision medicine, the practice of treating cancers with drugs designed to exploit tumor-specific targets.

“[Mickey] led the development and harmonization of the next-generation sequencing assay that was critical in allowing nearly 6,000 patients to be enrolled in the novel, genomically directed NCI-MATCH trial in less than two years, an incredible feat at the time,” said Lyndsay Harris, M.D., deputy director of NCI’s Cancer Diagnosis Program. “Mickey’s leadership and expertise have been indispensable in allowing the Division [of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis] to succeed in the genomic era, and he will be greatly missed by colleagues and staff.”

In another recent undertaking, Williams and team partnered with biotechnology company Illumina to validate the latter’s 523-gene TruSight™ Oncology 500 assay for liquid biopsies for cancer detection. The multi-year collaboration has seen MoCha and Illumina benchmark and test the assay’s ability to detect minute traces of tumor DNA circulating in cancer patients’ blood plasma. They’re currently evaluating it as a noninvasive tool to support clinical research. (Williams does not have a financial stake in the commercial product.)

“Dr. Williams’ team’s insights and opinions are highly valued as collaborators, but more broadly in the liquid biopsy space,” said Jennifer LoCoco, Ph.D., director of assay development at Illumina. “Dr. Williams in particular has always been ready to provide his guidance on the most meaningful future study plans, as well as how to bring together different stakeholders to advance the scientific utility and impact of studies the MoCha team has set out to perform.”

Williams is also especially proud of helping to develop and perform analytical validation on the NCI Myeloid Assay, which received Investigational Device Approval from the FDA. The assay, created as a collaboration between MoCha and Thermo Fisher Scientific, operates on the fully automated Genexus device and allows scientists to quickly perform powerful next-generation sequencing.

The NCI Myeloid Assay will be used to obtain genomic results for acute myeloid leukemia patients enrolled in the MyeloMATCH trial. Williams believes this assay will “be a game-changer” for patients, providing opportunities for precision medicine treatments to begin within 72 hours of cancer diagnosis.

Curiosity Becomes Passion

Williams always knew he’d have a career in science. He recalls sitting on the porch of his childhood home and eagerly listening to his father, an aviation mechanic, explain the Venturi effect and the physics behind engines’ function.

“I always had this natural curiosity, and it’s certainly because of my dad and his curiosity and the things that he was learning and sharing with me,” Williams said.

Williams’ first job out of college, a contractor research assistant at NCI’s Meloy Laboratories, was similarly formative. He worked among a group supporting George Todaro, M.D., in NCI’s preliminary studies of cancer viruses. Getting to see how cancer biology, virology, and molecular biology intersected—and getting to witness the early days of genomic exploration—Williams was hooked. It was the moment he realized he wanted to pursue molecular biology for the rest of his life.

At the urging of a supervisor, he attended graduate school, obtaining a Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Virginia. Today, he’s grateful for the intellectually cultivating environment his advisor, Suzanne Emerson, Ph.D., created—and equally grateful for the challenging environment his postdoctoral mentor, Gordon Ringold, Ph.D., fostered thereafter. Both shaped his scientific ability and persona.

A Legacy of Teamwork

Williams took his first post-trainee position as a scientist at Genentech, at the time a small, San Francisco–based company with about a thousand employees. There, he and his team worked with collaborators at Roche Molecular Systems and Applied Biosystems and tested the first real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction instrument deployed outside of the Applied Biosystems and Roche laboratories. He was the senior author on the first papers describing the real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction process, which has since become a dependable, widely used method the world over.

“That was very impactful, and I was extremely proud. I was in the right place at the right time,” Williams said, adding that one paper has been cited over 8,700 times.

After over a decade at Genentech, Williams moved to Roche to become senior group lead of their oncology diagnostic effort. It introduced him to the clinical diagnostics industry and the larger diagnostics market. He was especially gratified to have initiated two of Roche’s projects for diagnostics that received FDA approval.

“Being a part of a team that advances knowledge: I feel that has been my whole career. I’ve always been kind of in the right place at the right time working with very wonderful colleagues,” he said.

His time at Roche also brought him back into collaboration with NCI scientists, which in turn opened the door for his transition to FNL. And it’s FNL, both its people and its mission, where he truly felt at home: “a wonderful place,” as he calls it.

His decision to retire from that wasn’t made lightly, but he insists it’s just a new chapter. He intends to stay in touch with his cherished coworkers at MoCha and his collaborators, and he’ll be eagerly watching to see where their advances go.

After all, retired or not, he’s still steadfastly a molecular biologist.


Samuel Lopez leads the editorial team in Scientific Publications, Graphics & Media (SPGM). He writes for newsletters; informally serves as an institutional historian; and edits scientific manuscripts, corporate documents, and sundry other written media. SPGM is the creative services department and hub for editing, illustration, graphic design, formatting, multimedia, and training in these areas.