Tova Williams, Research Assistant Professor at Wilson College of Textiles, is a scientific trailblazer. A lover of chemistry since grade school, she followed her passion for color to an impressive career in the science of dyes. Her current work centers on designing dyes that are safe and environmentally benign, an exciting area of science that is developing quickly.
Below, we talk with Williams about her life and work.
How did you decide you wanted to pursue a career path in science?
I developed a fondness for math and science while undertaking my grade school classes (and arguably when I was in my mother’s womb, since she often practiced math problems so I would absorb the knowledge early on).
I wanted to be many things growing up, including a veterinarian and a marine biologist. However, after taking my first chemistry course in high school, I knew I was going to be a chemist. My chemistry teacher, Mrs. Carolyn Davila, played a huge role in my decision. Not only was she a phenomenal role model, she was also a phenomenal teacher. She taught the concepts in such a way that not only made it easy for me to comprehend but enthused me about the science. (Fun fact: Mrs. Davila also taught my mothers and sisters and I was one of her last students before she retired)
Thus, I set my heart on joining the Wolfpack at NC State to major in either chemistry or biochemistry. When I discovered an unconventional chemistry degree the University offered, polymer and color chemistry, I made up my mind to pursue this degree. For one, this degree combined two of my loves, chemistry and color, and secondly, the first African American scientist I ever met was a success in this field. The latter was pivotal for me as an African American female, demonstrating to me that I too could succeed in this field. That African American, Dr. Harold Freeman, later became my mentor and played an influential role in me pursuing graduate school and my now faculty role.
What fascinated you about dye and textile-related science specifically?
Prior to joining NC State, I had no clue that my loves, chemistry and color, were so closely related and that a college of textiles existed. In fact, the color of a dye is inherent in its chemical structure.
After I made up my mind to transition into the now Wilson College of Textiles to pursue a polymer and color chemistry bachelor’s degree, I fell in love even more with the degree and the science. I appreciated the practical/hands-on application of what I was learning in the classroom and worked in a pilot laboratory for a year to translate the knowledge into real world applications. This experience later enabled me to pursue different roles in the textiles and other industries to try to solve a variety of challenges such as finding ways to recycle water during textile dyeing to reduce the amount of water used and leached into the environment.
My undergraduate courses gave me a taste of the environmental issues associated with textile and other dyes and inspired me to take a stab at solving these issues. What really intrigued me about polymer and color chemistry was how transferable the hands-on experience was to other areas. Indeed, as a graduate student, I applied the knowledge I learned as an undergraduate to find ways to design sustainable/less toxic hair dyes (or a cosmetic application).
What are some of the unique challenges that the dye and textile industry presents that science and chemistry can help solve?
I am grateful for my experiences in industry and academia, in research and business/sales, to glean different perspectives and challenges. What I have observed over the past years is that there is transformative academic research being conducted in the area of green chemistry/sustainability especially for textiles, such as ways to apply the dyes using waterless technologies.
However, for the research to be translated to industry and applied, it needs to be better showcased from a chemistry/science lens that the technology is practical in this respect. I believe academia can help make the dyes and technologies more translatable and adoptable by demonstrating their feasibility by conducting more pilot lab studies and partnering with industry to do so and ultimately apply things on a commercial scale. Also, clearly disseminating the knowledge to stakeholders is key.
Tell us about your current research. Why have you chosen sustainability as a focus?
I am the Principal Investigator of The Sustainable Dye Chemistry Laboratory. We focus on the design and development of more environmentally benign dyes and application processes for a variety of materials including textiles and human hair. In this respect, we work with both natural and synthetic dyes, and we do not assume either is more sustainable. For example, we study the toxicological effects of both.
We are working on a variety of sustainability-focused projects, including structurally modifying dyes to be able to apply them in waterless dyeing technologies, studying metal-complexable dyes that can be formed using mild conditions and environmentally benign metals, and bioproducing dyes to rely less on petroleum as a resource.
I chose sustainability as a focus for my laboratory because I care about the human health and environmental effects of dyes on a personal level. I was driven to begin research on designing sustainable hair dyes after discovering some of the components used to form the most popular dyes during application could cause a severe allergic reaction for my mother or myself (we used to religiously apply the dyes). Ultimately, I wanted to make hair dye exposures safer for my mother, myself, and other users as well as hair stylists and hair dye manufacturers who also come into contact with the dyes.
Another reason I chose sustainability as a focus of my laboratory is it is such a hot topic area in research, and there are many challenging problems to be solved, especially for dyes. So there are lots of possible research problems to sustain our research program (get it??). I am often approached by very passionate students who want to work in this area and on the projects my laboratory is undertaking.
We read that you are “looking for ways to train nature to solely produce the colorants desired.” Can you tell us more about what this means and your progress?
Certainly! Nature is a masterful synthetic chemist, synthesizing a variety of chemicals including dyes. I want to take advantage of what nature does best and train biological systems to solely produce what is desired (or the dyes).
I am excited to share that I recently was awarded funds from the Comparative Medicine Institute and the Genetics and Genomics Academy at NC State to launch a project soon dedicated to bioproducing naturally occurring dyes for their amenability in waterless textile dyeing processes. This project will bridge the fields of textile (dye) chemistry and synthetic biology and will be done in collaboration with Dr. Gavin Williams’ laboratory at NC State. Dr. Williams’ laboratory focuses on the bioproduction of chemicals for drug applications, so working with dyes will be a great addition to his team’s already outstanding portfolio. We will target a select group of dyes to initially bioproduce using a bacteria host and identifying the genes, pathways, and variants that will enable us to surpass what has been achieved to date.
If you could go back and give your 10-year-old self one piece of advice for succeeding in the world of STEM, what would you say?
I would tell myself to be more confident, especially with what I do know about dye chemistry, chemistry in general, and other sciences. And I would tell myself to have a more realistic expectation that I cannot know everything at once (knowledge comes with time) and to know that I am not unique in this respect to others. No one else knows everything, and we are all in the same boat constantly learning.