Scholar Spotlight - Thomas Williamson

Laidlaw Scholar Thomas Williamson, on the Hidden World of Stress Granules
Scholar Spotlight - Thomas Williamson

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Thomas Williamson, a Durham University Laidlaw Scholar, Deep Dives into the Hidden World of Stress Granules.

The view of Central Park from the top of the Rockefeller Center in New York. We visited New York for a weekend whilst on our LiA. 

Research title: The Effects of Imaging Plane Position when Measuring the Properties of Stress Granules

As with the titles of many physics papers, my research does exactly what it says on the tin but simultaneously does not give much away to the average reader…

You may remember from biology at school that cells contain organelles, like the nucleus, which are often surrounded by a membrane. However, some organelles do not have a membrane so are essentially just liquid droplets in the cytoplasm (though the physics is a little more complex!). This includes stress granules which form to store important proteins and RNA when the cell undergoes stress (like a change in temperature, pH or the presence of a toxin). If stress granules persist for a long time, then they begin to solidify and form fibres; it is thought that there may be a link between this and the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. 

In my first summer, I worked with a group in Durham and Bergen, Norway to use computational methods to determine the mechanical properties of these organelles, such as their surface tension and bending rigidity (how hard it is to bend something). This is done by analysing the thermal fluctuations of the organelles from microscope images and equating them to a physical model. 

Specifically, my project focused on building models to understand how the position of the microscope imaging plane (effectively a 2D slice through a 3D sphere) affects the returned values of surface tension and bending rigidity. We found that while there is variation in the returned values, this is small compared to the variation across a population of organelles.

A simulated stress granule. I split these into horizontal slices and fed them back through our analysis pipeline as part of my research project. 

I was also lucky enough to get my work published in the journal Science Advances as part of a paper on the wider project

Where did your passion for this research originate?

Condensed Matter Physics was one of my favourite areas of physics during my undergraduate degree so doing a project in this area seemed like a natural choice. CMP is basically the study of materials, some of which are quite common (like metals, biological materials and semiconductors) and some are more exotic (like superconductors), so I have always liked how easily it can be directly applied to our everyday lives and how new understanding of materials may change them in the future. However, the nature of a physics degree, which builds on the knowledge you acquire each year, means that it can be quite difficult to find the ‘cutting edge’  early on in your time at university. In fact, I had barely even heard of Soft Matter Physics (the sub-area of my research) before I found the project in a list of available summer projects published by my department. It ticked all the boxes for me though; working in an exciting, relatively new field, with lots of interdisciplinary working. Knowing that the work might someday play a (small) role in us understanding neurodegenerative diseases, which two of my grandparents had suffered from, was also an inspiring prospect. 

A microscope image of some granules made outside of a cell. The largest of these are approximately four thousandths of a millimeter in diameter.

After my research had finished, I was lucky enough to be offered a PhD position working on the same project, to continue the research and develop our analysis technique further. I have started this work in October 2023 and have already got stuck in analysing data from different scenarios and developing new ways for us to automate the analysis further. I’m really excited to see where the project takes me and the people I get to work with over the next few years!

How have you applied your leadership skills in real life?

I don’t really like the term ‘real life’ as it implies that while learning, you can’t have a meaningful impact on the people around you. My experience over the past year and a half, particularly with other Laidlaw Scholars (and I hope others would say the same after working with me), is that this is not the case. 

I think my LiA project working with the Timothy Smith Network in Boston is a great example of this. Teaching and leadership require a very similar skill set; to do both well, you need to understand the needs of the people you are working with, communicate your thoughts clearly and think on your feet as the situation changes. I had very little experience with 3D modelling before doing my LiA but by just getting started and teaching myself how to use the software I would be using, it was surprising how far I got. I improved the most though once I actually get to Boston and had to teach the students for real — if one thing‘s for sure, it’s that you can rely on students to constantly throw curveballs at you while you teach, especially once they start working on their own projects! Having the other scholars and the TSN staff to work with really helped though; as Milton Irving, Executive Director at TSN would say, ”your village” is there to support you, and you them.

Part of my “Village”: the wonderful bunch of Laidlaw Scholars I got to work with at the Timothy Smith Network.

Even though my LiA is now finished, I still have opportunities to apply my leadership experience; now that I am starting my PhD, a continuation of my research project from the first summer, I am can be more integrated into my research group to work on longer-term collaborations. It’s great to  get to work with and learn from people from a variety of academic backgrounds and hopefully as my work progresses, I will get take on a more central role in the project too.

What are your top leadership tips?

  • Listen to people and make sure everyone can be heard — often, the best ideas come from the quietest voices. 
  • Make decisions based on facts, not facts based on decisions. 
  • If you aren’t sure about something, then ask — this can be difficult if you don’t know many people but it becomes a lot easier once you have a network of people around you that you can rely on. 

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

For me, being a Laidlaw Scholar is primarily about learning, both in terms of developing new skills but also (and mainly) having new experiences, meeting new people and learning about them. I hadn’t had the chance to work with such a diverse group of people, each with so much to offer, before so I’ve loved the experience. 

 Some more of the amazing scholars I got to work with, this time from Durham during our residential trip to Peat Rigg Outdoor Centre.

Which leaders inspire you the most and why?

I’m generally not a fan of the ”leaders” we hear about in the media; most only ever seem interested in personal gain. Instead, the leaders that inspire me are the ones we work with everyday. 

Some of my biggest influences have been my teachers. In particular, one of my secondary school chemistry teachers, Mr Rumney, was the sort of person to always be in his classroom and willing to help if you had any questions and would run after-school sessions specifically for this purpose. However, he was also always looking for students to be doing their work to the best of their ability and would push you as far as possible, with as many extensions harder tasks as you could get through! I have always admired his ability to cater to each student even in large classes and he was greatly respected across the school for it. 

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

Simply put, I want people to be kind and considerate towards each other! I think all too often people can be quite selfish and only consider their own needs and not the needs of others too. In a sense, I feel as though this selfish instinct almost seems ‘built in’; to survive and to find food and shelter, we needed to put our own needs above the needs of others. However, for many of us, this is no-longer the case. Many of the problems that we face as a collective (especially the larger ones like climate change and the cost of living) will require us to make decisions that will benefit everyone, even if that does mean we have to make minor personal sacrifices. The same goes for education too; ensuring as many people as possible have access to high quality education, to the level that they want in the discipline that they want is incredibly important as we can never know where the next great ideas will come from. However, this requires us to invest properly in children since they are often subject to ‘the luck of the draw’ as to the level of education that they get, or even whether they get one at all. 

Quick-fire Questions

🎥 Currently Binging: 

Bake Off (who isn’t?) That’s only once a week though and I’m not really watching any series at the moment, instead, I’ve recently been building a 3D printer after getting hooked on my LiA.

📚 My top book recommendation: Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine by Hannah Fry (or anything she’s done)

🎶 My anthem: She Moves In Her Own Way by The Kooks

🎵 Podcast obsession: A Problem Squared, Matt Parker & Beck Hill

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: 

Working with the students during my Leadership in Action project with the Timothy Smith Network in Boston and seeing them develop their prototype ideas was amazing. A little closer to home, I love going on walks through the woods around Durham!


You can find Thomas on LinkedIn. If you are interested in learning more about Thomas' research, check out his research here.

Thomas is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at Durham University. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.

Find out more about the Laidlaw Scholars Undergraduate Leadership and Research Programme.

🔦 Discover more Scholar Spotlights: 

⚡️ Adebusola Adegbuyi, a Laidlaw Scholar at Saïd Business School, on facing challenges with optimism and empowering young women to begin careers in technology.

⚡️ Aya Hammad, a University of York Laidlaw Scholar, on understanding the origins of cancer, promoting equality in healthcare, and learning to be adaptable.

⚡️ Xuerui Yin, a Laidlaw Scholar at London Business School, on overcoming societal norms, creating opportunities for underrepresented groups, and working with compassion.

⚡️ Areesha Imaan Siddiqui, a University of Toronto Laidlaw Scholar and Co-President of the Laidlaw Alumni Society, on combatting homelessness and leading with open, honest communication.

⚡️ Polina Foteva, a University of St Andrews Laidlaw Scholar and STEM Subject Co-Lead, on working with a recently-discovered enzyme and making scientific knowledge more accessible.

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Go to the profile of Susanna Kempe
about 1 month ago

I hope you share this with Mr. Rumney @Thomas Williamson. I am sure he would be so pleased and proud. As you now know, being a teacher can be exhausting, and knowing that you have influenced someone's life who has gone on to do such fabulous things, and will indubitably do even more, will be a tonic for his soul. Plus everyone likes recognition!

Go to the profile of Thomas Williamson
about 1 month ago

Thanks@Susanna Kempe, I will do!

Go to the profile of Sophia Waseem Khan
27 days ago

Hi Thomas! What an amazing post and story! It was wonderful to work with you too during the residential!