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Tova Williams Named Research Assistant Professor at Wilson College of Textiles

Tova Williams

By Raymond Jones

The Wilson College of Textiles takes pride in publicizing the achievements of current and former students. And there aren’t many whose activities have drawn more attention than those of Tova Williams

The reason is because Williams has been so successful in such a broad range of academic and career pursuits. As a Ph.D. student she earned a prestigious National Science Foundation graduate fellowship. Later, she distinguished herself as a sales representative for Tokyo Chemical Industry (TCI), a global supplier of specialty organic chemicals to pharmaceutical and other industries.

Williams made the news yet again this spring when she was named as the Wilson College’s newest faculty member. She is a research assistant professor in the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science, where she started and continues to head up The Sustainable Dye Chemistry Laboratory

Williams’ resume includes a bachelor’s degree in polymer and color chemistry earned in 2014. She then pursued a Ph.D. in fiber and polymer science, awarded in 2018. Many people with such strong credentials remain in academia, but Williams wanted to try something different. So, she took a job doing contract research for Cotton Incorporated, a not-for-profit that provides the resources and expertise needed to help companies develop and market cotton products. 

Williams enjoyed that opportunity, but returned to NC State in 2019 to do post-doctoral research at the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC). At TPACC, she  reconnected with one of her former undergraduate teachers, Assistant Professor Bryan Ormond, who has since become a valued mentor.

Under Ormond’s tutelage, she continued to cultivate her skills as a practical problem-solver.  She studied ways to detect the types and amounts of contaminants firefighters may be exposed to during a live fire scenario. She also looked at developing a color sensor to detect the presence of a chemical warfare simulant for a potential military application.

Although Williams greatly valued her time at TPACC, she ultimately had trouble resisting the temptation to get involved in private industry, hence the move to TCI. 

As she transitioned to her position there she quickly realized that good people skills could be as important as a superior technical background. Back in grade school, she says, she could sell girl scout cookies as well as anyone, anywhere. Nonetheless, selling specialty chemical products to diverse customers in government, industry and academia proved to be a whole different challenge. “It’s a good thing that my time in the research lab conditioned me to be persistent,” she says, “because when I went to work for TCI I really had to up my game!”

Williams’ marketing region for TCI included the entire Southeast United States. She liked traveling and meeting new people, but found that roughly half of her customers were working in academic settings. The campus visits pulled at her heartstrings. Over time, in fact, they lit a fire in her to return to the Wilson College and resume research, teaching and mentoring – her first loves.  

“There’s an old saying,” she says, “that your calling will follow you wherever you may go, and that was the case with me. I missed teaching and leading my own research team in dye chemistry. This new role is indeed my dream career, and it enables me to do it all in one.”

Williams’ appointment officially took effect in March. Her current research focuses heavily on sustainability. This means, among other things, finding better ways to develop and/or apply color. For example, she explores new ways to apply “biocolorants” – colorants derived from natural sources like fungi – to textiles. 

She is also looking for ways to train nature to solely produce the colorants desired. This would minimize the need to extract them from their source using large amounts of solvent. In addition, she is working to develop new hair dyes less likely to cause an allergic reaction in the huge number of consumers who use them. 

Williams says one of the keys to success in both her academic pursuits and career explorations has been love of learning, love of teaching and love of research – all of which were a natural byproduct of her experiences at NC State. 

“I enjoy challenges,” she says, “but I particularly enjoy any challenge that involves chemistry. And I look forward to getting my students involved in exploring sustainable dyes. It’s a field that’s quite exciting and very much still evolving.”