Published August 17, 2020
Computational techniques like machine learning and artificial intelligence are revolutionizing the way scientists discover new drugs, says researcher.
William Welsh is a professor in bioinformatics and molecular design whose areas of expertise include computational chemistry, drug design, predictive toxicology, pattern recognition, bioinformatics, and cheminformatics. His lab specializes in the development and application of computational tools for pharmaceutical drug discovery. His lab has contributed to the discovery of drug candidates for the treatment of cancer, severe and chronic pain, and infectious diseases. As a member of Rutgers’ Department of Pharmacology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Welsh also trains the next generation of research scientists while serving the medical and scientific communities.
Welsh received a doctorate in theoretical physical chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1975. He pursued postdoctoral studies in computational physical chemistry at the University of Cincinnati and served as a research scholar at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 1985, he joined the faculty of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Missouri. There, he served as inaugural director of the university’s Center for Molecular Electronics. He joined Rutgers in 2001.
His many awards and honors include the St. Louis Research Award, the University of Missouri–St. Louis Chancellor’s Research and Creativity Award, the University of Missouri Entrepreneur of the Year Award, the John C. Krantz Jr. Award, and the Honorary Society Plenary Lectureship from Georgia State University. He has served on the advisory boards of several scientific journals.
He is the founder of Snowdon Inc., a start-up company that specializes in developing computational tools to accelerate the discovery of therapies for treating cancer, pain, and infectious diseases.
The Norman Edelman Endowed Professorship in Bioinformatics was established by Janssen Pharmaceutical, Inc.
In the Professor’s Own Words
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your work?
Without doubt, the most fulfilling aspect of my work involves my interactions with, and impact on, our students. As holder of an endowed professorship, I am keenly aware that students—whether in the classroom or the research lab—are looking for mentors and role models to help shape their academic development and professional careers. I feel extremely fortunate for the opportunity to teach, mentor, and, I hope, inspire our students. These students span all levels of their educational development, from undergraduate and graduate students to postgraduate research scholars and medical students.
One professor or chair can touch hundreds or even thousands of lives through the courses they teach, the students they mentor, and their own academic research. I firmly believe that students do not learn only from textbooks, but from their professors in the classroom and the laboratory.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
By far, the most challenging aspect of my work is to stay current on the cutting edge in biomedical science. The past decades have witnessed the unprecedented emergence and rapid growth of numerous technologies that directly impact my research activities in computer-aided drug discovery. For example, the sudden prominence of computational techniques like machine learning and artificial intelligence is revolutionizing the way scientists discover new drugs. These technologies enable biomedical researchers to rapidly discover new drug prospects on the computer, thereby saving enormous time and toil in our quest to find cures for diseases and to treat patients.
The emergence of immunology in general, and immuno-oncology in particular, has created new strategies for treating cancer by unharnessing the patient’s immune system to recognize and destroy cancerous tumors. It is no exaggeration to say that the use of artificial intelligence and immuno-oncology in the laboratory and clinic is ahead of scientists’ ability to understand them at a fundamental level.
What do you hope students take away from working with you?
My hope is that students who have worked with me, or have been taught by me, are touched by my sheer love of science and life-long learning. Based on feedback from these students, I seem to instill a sense of fraternity with students as individuals. I consider myself a student like them, so it is natural to place myself in their shoes. I feel very fortunate to be spending my career as a university professor, since my profession enables me to encourage and inspire students in their life’s journey both personally and professionally. To paraphrase a saying, a life worth living is one always learning.
Which of your many achievements is most meaningful for you?
It’s very difficult to single out any one achievement as most meaningful. So often, an achievement doesn’t reveal its sense of meaning until many years later. Of course, I am honored and humbled by the recognition from awards that punctuated my career as a teacher, mentor, and researcher. For example, I was surprised to be the recipient of the 2019 Hall of Fame in Science Award from my high school alma mater, Northeast Catholic High School. Overall, however, I feel the greatest pleasure is to hear about the successes of former students whom I have mentored in my laboratory or have taught in classes. Almost all of the students who worked and trained in my laboratory over the past 30 years stay in touch. I consider this, most of all, a testament to the personal and professional bond that we shared.
This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond.