From laboratories to letters: Biology professor Kurt Williamson leads virology studies, encourages COVID-19 safety

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Kurt Williamson is an associate biology professor who openly criticized the College’s response plan for the fall 2020 reopening in the wake of COVID-19. COURTESY PHOTO / KURT WILLIAMSON

From unapologetic geekiness, to dry humor and the hand-painted mural on the walls of his lab, biology professor Kurt Williamson draws students to his classroom each semester. But the long and winding road which brought Williamson to the College of William and Mary was anything but traditional. 

“I don’t want to pretend like I had a plan,” Williamson said. “None of this stuff has been a straight shot.”

“I don’t want to pretend like I had a plan,” Williamson said. “None of this stuff has been a straight shot.” 

Williamson grew up in the small city of Newark, Del. As a graduate of the University of Delaware, Williamson is proud of his heritage, but he’s also quick to joke about the public perception of his tiny home state.  

“I’m from the great state of Delaware, which gets a lot of traction because of Joe Biden,” Williamson said. “My joke with students is that we still have dinosaurs there … but yeah, sure, we’ll take Biden.” 

 Williamson traces his love of biology back to his former professor Steve Skopik, who taught an introductory biology course at the University of Delaware. Williamson said that Skopik’s self-confidence and passion for the material had a major impact on him. 

 “He really fostered curiosity and embraced who he was as a nerd who loved biology,” Williamson said. “And it kind of showed me you could be that way. You could unabashedly love what you do.” 

 Williamson said it wasn’t until near the end of his sophomore year of college that he started considering education as a career path. He realized that he wanted to show other people how to ask the right questions in an ever-changing world. 

 “As we all know from “Hitchhiker’s Guide,” if your question is too nebulous, you get an answer that’s nebulous,” Williamson said. “I thought, ‘wow, wouldn’t it be great to do that?’ To sort of be that person who helps other people figure this stuff out.” 

 After his four-and-a-half-year undergraduate career, Williamson spent some time working odd jobs while trying to figure out what he wanted to do next. He painted houses, he washed dishes at Friendly’s, he applied for the Peace Corps and he worked at a video rental store. 

“Not Blockbuster,” Williamson said. “You know, one of those independent shops with a seedy adult room in the back. That had some stories. Working at that joint was a whole exercise in human behavior and psychology. It was fascinating.” 

 After his post-graduate gap year, Williamson started applying to graduate programs in engineering and bioremediation. Unfortunately, his low GRE scores got in the way.  

 “As if a person can be encapsulated in one number,” Williamson said.  

 Williamson found his break through Mark Radosevich, a graduate advisor at the University of Delaware who agreed to waive the GRE requirements and offered Williamson a spot in his bioremediation graduate program. That was when Williamson started to become interested in virology, the study of viruses. 

 “Mark had some crazy ideas about using viruses as a genetic engineering tool for delivering specific gene sets to in situ bacteria,” Williamson said. “That idea was never really going to get to the application phase, but it forced us to take some steps back and say, ‘well, how do viruses interact with their hosts in soils, in a natural setting?’ Before you start trying to manipulate the system, what actually happens there?” 

 Virology is now Williamson’s academic specialty. In fact, he is the only virologist employed by the College. But he never intended to work at the College. He almost didn’t even apply. 

 “I applied for the job mostly because my graduate advisor pushed me to,” Williamson said. “I thought it was too early,  like I thought I wasn’t ready and that I wouldn’t get the position. So, I put my best foot forward, but in my mind,  it was practice. That partly enabled me to get through the interview. I think if I really thought it was going to happen, if I was too attached to the outcome, I probably would have been super nervous and flubbed everything.” 

 When Paul Heideman, who was the chair of the biology department at the time, offered Williamson the job, he was really surprised.  

 In fact, Williamson’s surprise stemmed from a concept that many college students face throughout their academic career — the idea of feeling like an imposter.  

“I think a lot of us are like that in terms of this so-called imposter syndrome,” Williamson said. “You get to a stage of your career and you have some level of expertise and probably some respect from your peers and even people outside your field, but inside I’m still just that kid who is kind of goofing around and enjoying learning new things. ‘How could I possibly be regarded as an authority?’”

 “I think a lot of us are like that in terms of this so-called imposter syndrome,” Williamson said. “You get to a stage of your career and you have some level of expertise and probably some respect from your peers and even people outside your field, but inside I’m still just that kid who is kind of goofing around and enjoying learning new things. ‘How could I possibly be regarded as an authority?’” 

 Back in June, Williamson made local headlines when the William & Mary Workers’ Union published an open letter to College President Katherine Rowe written by Williamson criticizing the College’s decision to reopen amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“While I commend the College for its determination to explore its options, it is clear that there is only one safe way forward this coming fall, and that is to keep classes online and students off campus as much as possible,” Williamson said in the letter. 

Williamson explained that it was not originally intended to be an open letter. He had written it and sent it to the administration earlier in the summer as other schools started announcing their fall semester plans. 

“As the weeks went on, I started to get nervous,” Williamson said. “I’m seeing other institutions essentially coming up with reasons to reopen. And I became really worried that that was going to be what happened with us.” 

When the Workers’ Union found out that Rowe’s administration had not consulted the College’s only viral disease expert while developing the reopening plan, they reached out to Williamson and he gave the union his permission to publish the letter online. Now, Williamson is feeling a little bit more hopeful about how the College has handled the pandemic. 

“I have to say I’m impressed,” he said. “Especially when the dominoes started falling in other places. I mean, UNC? Boom! JMU? Boom!” 

He said that he even thinks that the College might make it to the end of the semester without being forced to shut down again. 

“We’ve made it this far,” Williamson said. “I feel like if we were going to run into trouble, it was going to be in those first crucial weeks, probably the first four weeks, which we’re through now. If anything, it’s about keeping it up. Because it’s easy to get complacent.”Williamson’s story is full of twists and turns that even he did not always see coming, but it serves as a lesson to college students that the right path does not always have to be the clear one. 

“I don’t know what kind of example I am for students,” Williamson said. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s anything to hold up. Bur for students who are wondering …, ‘what if I don’t have my sh-t together? What if I don’t know what I want to do?’ Personally, I only had vague ideas.”