Alumni Profiles Series: Stephen Williams

 July 22, 2020

Stephen Williams, Ph.D.

Stephen Williams received his Ph.D. in Pharmacology in 1980. He came to Duke after receiving his B.S. degree in biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He worked at DuPont Medical and then Bristol Myers Squibb for several years and then transitioned to recruiting in 1998. Currently, he is a Partner with Catalyst Advisors, a global recruiting firm that specializes in executive leadership for biopharmaceutical companies.

What has your career path been since Duke?

After getting my Pharmacology Ph.D., I started my first job as a toxicologist at DuPont Haskell Laboratory in Delaware. After three years I was transferred to the Boston area to lead drug discovery laboratory in a pharmaceutical company that DuPont had acquired.  There I was very fortunate to have had a pivotal role in the discovery and development of two drugs (imaging agents) that became commercial products, Cardiolite® and Neurolite®. From there, I accumulated my industry experience by working in a number of different roles in other companies, large and small: from research management to strategic marketing to business development. To me, my transition from bench research to corporate functions has been a way to live according to my philosophy of life, which is to be open to many opportunities.

After two decades of working for various pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies across the United States, I moved into executive recruiting for life science companies in 1998. Working in human therapeutics is resource intensive and time consuming. Having worked with technology and having raised money in biotech, it became quite clear that people are probably the most complicated part of the process. I ended up joining recruiting firms because of my shared dedication for people and science. My primary work is recruiting for innovative therapeutics companies. Currently, I am a Partner with Catalyst Advisors in the firm's Los Angeles office, where I am a leader in our practice recruiting senior executives to innovative life sciences companies.

Did you envision yourself with this kind of career path during your Ph.D.?

I can tell you that I never knew that I would be a recruiter! When I was a Ph.D. student in Pharmacology and working with toxicologists, I was funded by Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology. At that time, I thought I would be a toxicologist for life. When I joined DuPont, I was given accountability to respond to criticisms from outside organization against animal experimentation.  I was charged with developing methods to reduce the use of animals in chemical testing.  My first project was to find a way to reduce the use of animals (rabbits) in testing chemicals for eye irritation. For this study, I came up with an idea to see whether the results of a skin irritation test could predict eye irritation. In other words, if the skin irritation is serious, why would we want to put this product directly into the eye? Instead of doing specific animal studies, I worked with a statistician to go over about 40 years of historical test results.  We determined skin irritation scores to be a valid indicator of eye irritation potential. If a chemical is a strong irritant to the skin, there is no reason to test it in the eye. I was invited to present that data at the Royal Academy of Science of London. However, after that experience, I realized that I didn’t want to be a toxicologist looking at all these adverse effects. I really wanted to look into human therapeutics and try to make chemicals that would help people, not harm them.

My Ph.D. advisor, Daniel B. Menzel, Ph.D. published a paper about the predictability of animal models at that time as well. We were always thinking about questions like, are these results real? Could we use these results to apply to human therapeutics or even to predict human toxicity? This research focus had always connected me to helping and being connected to people.

What do you like best about your current job?

What satisfies me is being able to say I am accountable for bringing great people to great companies and to be just a tiny bit accountable for that company’s success. Such outcomes make me feel like I am contributing the right person for the right position. In 2017 I recruited Dr. Reshma Kewalramani as the new Chief Medical Officer for Vertex Pharmaceuticals   A few months ago, she was promoted to be their Chief Executive Officer (CEO). There is only one other woman leading a pharmaceutical company larger than Vertex. After Dr. Kewalramani had accepted the CMO role at Vertex, my wife and I had dinner with her and her husband. After that dinner, my wife said, “Now I know why you love your job. You get to spend time with great and accomplished people!”

What is surprising about your job?

How complicated people can be and how some believe that they can hide the facts of their lives.

For example, the most surprising experience that I ever had was when I first started recruiting. I was recruiting a vice president for business development and licensing for Pfizer. I personally interviewed an applicant who had worked at a Chicago-based pharma company and then was at a different company in New Jersey. On his CV, he had stated that he was a M.D., Ph.D., J.D., so we did some research on his background before we sent him to our client. We found out many statements on his CV were not real (e.g., his medical license had been revoked) and he actually had been in jail in Illinois and had convicted of a serious crime. Obviously, we didn’t send him to our client. I think that’s the reason why it’s so important to do deep research and background checking on executive candidates. Don’t believe everything you read on a CV.

When recruiting, how do you pair the right person to the right position?

It depends. When I am looking for the right person, the CV is only the starting point. To me, a CV is like a DNA sequence, a string of letters that mean nothing until they are expressed. My job is to express this CV and those letters and, finding no lethal mutations, proceed to the next phase. In terms of quality, I am looking for the applicant’s degrees, good education, career stability (i.e. people who stay in their companies for a reasonable period of time), career growth/promotion and accomplishments. For the interview, our clients require accomplished leaders who can inspire teams to accomplish great things.  They need to be results focused, strategic, collaborative and to be able demonstrate those capabilities during the interview process.   At the outset, I think I am just looking for honesty and a good human, basic things.  We always meet candidates face-to-face or on video. In those meetings, I also meet the applicant’s closest partner, such as significant other or spouse, since they influence the applicant’s decision greatly and constitute an important component of the decision process.

Would you recommend that a Ph.D. student start their first job in a recruiting firm?

No. I think in recruiting, it’s important to understand your clients, their business and what drives them. It takes a while to understand people and to gain finesse in assessing them. Working with people in a relevant setting to where you would be recruiting is really important, I believe. Finishing your Ph.D. is an accomplishment.  It shows you know how to understand and apply science and plan and complete a project.  It doesn’t teach you a great deal about working in teams, leading others, or the complexities of business.

What is the best career advice that you have ever received?

Know your passion and be open to opportunity! You can’t plan your career too much. I talk to people all the time who say, “I am ready to be a CEO.”  My response is, “Then go be a CEO.” I would recommend not just looking at the titles you want to have. Instead, look at what accomplishments you want to achieve. What is your legacy to be?

One of my mentors is an immunologist from Hong Kong. She was my boss when I started in marketing. She went from science to marketing to strategic product planning and then to the head of healthcare analysis at Goldman Sachs.  I have watched her to be open to all these possibilities. You just never know what opportunity comes your way. My advice for you is that you can’t get too ingrained in the topic of your Ph.D. Do this project because this is important, but you have to know there are a lot of fascinating things happening in the world right now. What you are doing might be relevant to a lot of things that might not be obvious.

What is one of your favorite memories of Duke?

The scariest part of my time at Duke was when I got my results for my written exam in the mail. There were three questions, and the letter said that I had I missed two out of three, so I didn’t pass. However, I was certain that I answered at least two of them correctly. I went back and checked with my committee. As it turned out, they mixed up my exam paper with someone else’s! In fact, I got three out of three correct. Also, my mentor, Dr. Dan Menzel, was inspirational and so supportive.

Any advice you’d like to share with current graduate students at Duke?

Focus on the science, be open to possibilities, and have fun!


Hsuan-Yuan (Sherry) Wang
Hsuan-Yuan (Sherry) Wang

Ph.D. candidate, Immunology

Hsuan-Yuan (Sherry) Wang is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Immunology. Before she began graduate school at Duke, she received her B.S. degree in medical science at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan. Currently, she is investigating how to increase the efficacy of Human Cytomegalovirus (HCMV) vaccine in Dr. Sallie Permar’s Lab. She is interested in pursuing a career in drug development and healthcare.