Marta Williams '19

Marta Williams: Luther lab opens doors for neuroscientist

This September, Marta Williams boarded an overnight flight to Germany, where she is already hard at work investigating a possible future treatment for Parkinson’s disease. “I’m using mouse models to test the possible neuroprotective effects of a compound called polysialic acid,” she says of that research, which she is conducting as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bonn.

Williams is quick to point out her journey to receiving a prestigious Fulbright all began in the Sampson Hoffland laboratory of Stephanie Fretham ’05, Luther assistant professor of biology. Fretham uses C. elegans nematodes, or microscopic worms, to investigate the effect of metals on the nervous system and the interaction between genetic and environmental factors in the development of neurodegenerative disease. “Gaining experience in Dr. Fretham’s lab opened a lot of doors for me,” she says. “It was that initial lab experience that allowed me to gain even more complex lab experience.”

And the research experience Williams gained while working toward a major in biology is inarguably impressive. She spent one summer conducting research at the University of Minnesota and another at New York University. This past summer, she continued her use of C. elegans to study neurological disease at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California. “I have been primarily looking at one particular signaling pathway and how it interacts with iron regulation to influence aging, neurotoxicity, and other things that we know contribute to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s,” she explains.

Given Williams’s almost laser-like focus on neurological research, one might think her career path was clear-cut from the start—but that was far from the case. “I grew up in a very musical family, playing piano and flute and singing,” says Williams, who hails from Woodbury, Minnesota. Upon matriculating at Luther, from which her sister, Leah, graduated in 2017, she deliberately kept her options open, signing up for music theory, Latin, chemistry, and (of course!) Paideia classes her first semester. “I quickly decided I wanted to major in biology, but I also wanted to get the most out of my liberal arts experience,’’ she says. “So I took religion, sociology, and Spanish courses, focusing on taking varied classes that genuinely interested me, as opposed to obtaining credits for one particular minor.”

Williams also indulged her passion for music by performing in two Luther ensembles each year, one instrumental (playing piccolo and flute) and one choral. She singles out her Concert Band piccolo solo in Sousa’s iconic “Stars and Stripes Forever” as one of her most treasured musical experiences to date. “A big part of my choosing Luther was that I could participate fully in music while not having to major in it,” she says.

While making the most of her Fulbright year—“I’m constantly striving to improve myself, and I love to embrace a challenge,” she says—Williams has her sights set on medical school, and ultimately on a career in neurology, neurosurgery, or perhaps psychiatry. “Neuroscience is an area where medicine and research really do coexist,” she says. “There is so much related to neurodegenerative diseases that we don’t know yet—and that makes it an intriguing area to study.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam