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Two From UTHSC Receive President’s Awards

Michael Alston, EdD, and Robert Williams, PhD, are honorees for the 2020 President’s Awards, which represent the highest honor a UT employee can receive from the university.

Two outstanding leaders at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center were among the six winners of the 2020 UT President’s Awards announced today by UT President Randy Boyd.

Michael Alston, EdD, CCDP/AP, chief diversity officer, assistant vice chancellor for Equity and Diversity, and Title IX coordinator at UTHSC, and Robert Williams, PhD, UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair in Computational Genomics and chair of the Department of Genetics, Genomics and Informatics, were selected for these annual awards, which represent the highest honor a UT employee can receive from the university.

The awards are presented in six different categories — Educate, Discover, Connect, Support Exempt, Support Nonexempt, and Diversity. Dr. Williams was honored in the Discover category and Dr. Alston was honored in the Diversity category. Honorees are selected from across the system from nominations by campus and institute leaders.

Michael Alston Champions Strategic Vision for Diversity and Inclusion

Since 2012, Dr. Alston has led UTHSC’s strategic vision for diversity and inclusion with excellence.

As the leader of the Office of Equity and Diversity, Dr. Alston has been integral in implementing initiatives to foster a diverse and inclusive environment on campus.

Michael Alston

“Dr. Alston has worked tirelessly to promote diversity and inclusion at UTHSC,” said Chancellor Steve Schwab, MD, in his letter of nomination. “While it is assumed he would focus on this area given his position, he continually exceeds expectations and creates innovative programs that stretch his office beyond standard responsibilities.”

Since his tenure, the Office of Equity and Diversity has launched three innovative and successful programs.

In 2017, the Office of Equity and Diversity began offering the Diversity Certificate Program (DCP) to faculty and staff. The program brings together a diverse cohort of employees who attend a series of 10 courses focused on topics that explore the foundational concepts essential to enhancing an inclusive work environment.

Faculty and staff participate through lectures, experiential activities, and independent learning activities offered in either a four-month format for the Memphis campus or a two-day conference in the spring for the Memphis campus and offsite partners. The DCP curriculum builds knowledge, understanding, and application methodologies to address dynamics within a diverse academic health science center. Participants must successfully pass an exam to graduate from the program. Since it launched, the DCP has graduated more than 160 faculty and staff.

The success of the DCP led to the Diversity Passport Program (DPP) and the Diversity and Inclusion Book Club designed to continue education and bridge global connection with the Memphis community. Launched in 2019, the DCP, a free experiential program is offered to faculty, staff, students, and trainees that allows participants to “see, taste, learn, listen, read, and immerse themselves in a diverse and inclusive Memphis.”

Dr. Alston and his team were also responsible for the creation of the Diversity and Inclusion Mini-Grants through a funding partnership with vice chancellors and deans. The grants offer funds ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 for individuals and groups whose creative projects impact the diversity goals of the university. Grant recipients have since promoted workshops addressing the social determinants of health; projects addressing research safety on campus; lunchtime workshop series that address unconscious bias; projects combating maternal and infant mortality in the African-American community; webinars for HBCU students on admissions requirements for professional schools; the creation of diverse student groups including the creation of the South Asian Medical Science Alliance (SAMoSA); and a conference for local high school counselors and science teachers to stimulate recruitment of minority students into the clinical laboratory sciences.

Dr. Alston was integral in the implementation and launch of Taleo, a faculty and executive applicant tracking tool that allows organizations to recruit top performers, and offers the ability to track demographics and strengthen diversity hiring practices. He educates all search committees and oversees staff investigations of Title IX and Title VI and VII allegations, while also offering yearly Mandatory Reporter training.

Through the Diversity Matters newsletter and the Inclusion listserv, Dr. Alston has led his team in the creation and growth of cultural awareness programming on campus facilitated through commemorative months for Black History Month, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, Hispanic American Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, LGBT Pride Month, and National Disability Employment Awareness Month. He is also credited with expanding the campus Veteran’s Day celebration from a brief reception to an event honoring our campus enlisted and retired military. He leads a team of five intelligent and committed professionals who provide these innovative programs, while also maintaining training, compliance, and investigations related to equity and diversity matters at the university.

His entire professional career has been in service to the University of Tennessee, beginning more than 30 years ago as an assistant residence hall director at UT Martin. He later became residence hall director, assistant director for business operations, and admissions counselor at UT Martin, before joining UT Knoxville. While at UT Knoxville, Dr. Alston served in many roles, including admissions counselor and associate director for the West Tennessee Division for undergraduate admissions in recruitment efforts of rural and underrepresented students. He joined UTHSC in 2002 as an employee relations specialist in OED, becoming director in 2005, and was promoted to assistant vice chancellor for OED in 2012.

“For me, winning this award is affirming and humbling because my commitment to diversity and inclusion work is based on the will to prepare for success through continuous learning and working well in partnership with others to make a difference,” Dr. Alston said.

Dr. Alston holds a doctoral degree from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University and a professional diversity management certificate from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. He is from Brighton, Tennessee and a 1984 graduate of Munford High School.

Dr. Robert Williams a Pioneer in Genetics Research

“Dr. Williams has not only advanced UTHSC’s position as a leader in the field of bioinformatics and genetics, he has been a national and international leader in those scientific fields over the past three decades,” wrote UTHSC Chancellor Steve J. Schwab, MD, in nominating Dr. Williams. “He is propelling not only UTHSC scientists, but scientists nationwide and worldwide into the rapidly developing fields of systems genetics and experimental precision medicine.”

Robert Williams

Dr. Williams has received 33 grants totaling more than $25 million as a principal investigator, co-principal investigator, or co-investigator. He currently is a principal investigator or co-investigator on seven active grants, each spanning four to five years and totaling $13 million.

Dr. Williams received his PhD in physiology from the University of California, Davis, and completed postdoctoral work in developmental neurobiology at Yale School of Medicine. He joined UTHSC in 1989 in the College of Medicine’s Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. In 2013, he became the founding chair of the Department of Genetics, Genomics and Informatics at UTHSC.

Known for his collaborative nature and his impressive scientific credentials, he has led the way in understanding genetic causes of individual differences and disease risk and how DNA differences interact with factors including diet, aging, and the environment. He is the director of the Complex Trait Community, an international group he co-founded in 2001, and is a founder of the field of systems genetics.

Dr. Williams was one of the lead scientists behind the creation of the Tennessee Mouse Genome Consortium, which developed mouse models for use in studying gene function in humans primarily related to aging, blinding diseases, addiction, and neurological disease.

He played a lead role in the university securing a $14 million grant in 2003 that resulted in construction of the UTHSC BSL-3 Regional Biocontainment Laboratory on campus.

Dr. Williams has also been a leader in multiple national and international projects, including the National Institutes of Health Human Brain Project from 2001 to 2011, which brought together researchers from 80 international institutions to study brain function and disease using genetic data and supercomputer technology. He is now leading a $5 million project for the National Institute on Drug Abuse to develop methods to generate and share genomic and genetic data on drug abuse.

Dr. Williams is also a key member in developing the UTHSC/Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital Biorepository and Integrative Genomics “BIG” project, an initiative to use genomic research in pursuit of personalized medicine.

He has produced 254 original research papers since 1982; 90 books, book chapters, and reviews; and five research websites. He is a member or officer of many professional and scientific boards and organizations and teaches graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

“Dr. Robert Williams is an accomplished researcher whose most-important contributions may have yet to be realized as we continue to develop the fields of systems genetics and experimental precision medicine,” Chancellor Schwab said. “He has laid the foundation of excellence in research at UTHSC; a foundation that will have a long-lasting impact.”

“This award belongs to a whole team at UT that has built up genetics programs since about 2001,” Dr. Williams said. “For the next 20 years we need to focus on human genetics and on improving health in Tennessee—starting with sick kids, substance abuse, diabetes, and infectious diseases. We are on the verge of big new collaborations in human genetics that will impact our communities.”

Other President’s Award winners are: Educate Honoree, Richard Robinson; Connect Honoree, Karen Armsey; Support (Exempt) Honoree, Ashlie Czyz; and Support (Nonexempt) Honoree, Davis Rash.