by Tannishtha Reya '91
How did you first hear about Williams and make the decision to attend?
Given the rather rigid programs in India, I was exploring higher education in the U.S. I heard about small liberal arts colleges from my brother, who was already in the U.S. and was very helpful in guiding me through the process. At the time I was also looking for a place where I could explore both the arts and the sciences. An early decision application to Williams seemed like a perfect opportunity—a place where I could balance taking classes in writing while also learning about Biology.
What were your first impressions upon arrival in Williamstown?
I arrived in the fall and was dropped off by a family friend, who surrounded me with a lot of love and care as I left my sheltered life with my parents. Her husband was a Williams alum, and I had run into her by chance at my school when she was traveling in India. I thought fall at Williams was beautiful with the leaves turning against the backdrop of the mountains, and the first few weeks were very much a honeymoon period—just before I got terribly homesick.
How did you feel as an international student at Williams?
For me it was a new country and a pristine beautiful campus, so it was really very exciting. I lived with a group of women in East, on what may have been one of the last non-coed floors. There was a sense of community and I found everyone incredibly friendly, and that really helped me adjust. Having that group of friends I could always turn to during my first and second year was critical, and the other close friends I made as an upperclass student made my experience there so much fun.
When were you able to feel as though Williams was a home, or a second home, for you?
I felt it more as an upperclass student when I became better adjusted to the new country and the pace of academics and expectations. I spent a couple of summers on campus when everything was in bloom and gorgeous. I walked around soaking in all that beauty, went to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, ran into George Wendt, the actor who played Norm from “Cheers,” went to the Clark art museum, spent time hiking in the valleys and along streams —and in those moments I felt lucky to be there.
Was there anyone who was instrumental in helping you to truly feel like an Eph and find your place?
Academically speaking, I faced a lot of challenges at the outset. Since I was unfamiliar with the structure and rigor of the courses, I took on a very difficult combination of math and astronomy classes in my first year, and I struggled with that coursework. However, a couple of years in I discovered biology and really connected with the excitement of making new discoveries with Professor Dan Lynch, who ultimately became my adviser. He saw something in me and was my support and inspiration, helping me explore the creative aspects of research and encouraging me to go to graduate school. His encouragement ultimately paved the way for me to attend a PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania. I can honestly say that he was the person who helped me find my place at Williams. There is no way to repay that debt.
After graduating from Williams, what has been your trajectory? What have you been up to?
After graduating I took quite a straight path through graduate school at Penn, to postdoctoral fellowships at University of California, San Francisco and Stanford. Following all this training, I joined Duke University as a faculty member. It was a great place to start my career, and it will always be close to my heart. I am now at the University of California, San Diego as a Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and the Director of the Division of Cancer Biology, where I have had the opportunity to do much more translationally oriented research, working with teams of clinicians and trialists, and seeing some of our discoveries go to the clinic. That has been an immense learning experience and a source of inspiration for me—to feel the near-term impact of the research we do and how critical it is for those in need of new therapies. The University of California, with all of its entrepreneurial spirit, has also led me to found a company to develop new anti-cancer agents out of my academic work. This is a brand-new endeavor and experience for me, and I am excited to see where it may lead.
But not everything has been easy. I am in a dual-career relationship, and navigating that as we have moved has been a challenge. My husband and I also have two amazing children, and so when they were young, juggling the kids and our careers was incredibly complex. In retrospect, I wouldn’t do anything differently. Having this family in the midst of a demanding career has served as an anchor and has often been a lifesaver, and being able to steal all that extra time with them during the pandemic was a real silver lining to a difficult year.
What has your experience been as a woman in the STEM field? Is there any advice that you would pass along to other women looking to enter this field?
Over the course of my career, I have had a lot of support from many people—a mix of men and women advisers and mentors, advocates, and family—all of whom were instrumental to my professional success. Although the combination of my gender and race may have made me vulnerable to intersectional bias, I have also been fortunate in having many opportunities, and receiving significant recognition for my work. I am certainly very grateful for what I do have.
But I am also acutely aware that systemically there is much work left to be done. At the risk of sounding clichéd, the advice I would give women entering the field is to really believe in themselves, and rely on those who are their advocates and allies. The path can be difficult, and there will always be people who think women are not capable, but I think it’s important for women to trust their instincts. I think one should also take inspiration from wherever one can get it. For me it was often from my grandmother, who was a well-known writer at a time when women were not part of such professions, and from my mother, who was a chair of an all-male department. I often looked to them to see what is possible, and I learned from them how important it is for me to chart my own course even when it’s difficult. It is really the only way that the barriers that so unfairly block the progress of girls and women across the world can be broken down for the next generation.
You just gave your first leadership gift. What inspired you to do that?
I have always felt grateful to Williams. If I have contributed meaningfully in some way, it started there. Although I struggled initially, someone saved me and made sure I was not lost to the system. I don’t think that this would have happened elsewhere, and I will always be grateful for that. Of course, Williams generously supported my education with an international fellowship, and for that I am also immensely grateful. I had always thought that when I had the opportunity to make a significant gift, my first gift would be to Williams. I am so thrilled that I was able to show Williams in some small way how much it has meant to me. I hope my gift helps Williams continue to be innovative and excel and help students “Climb high, climb far.”
What is your vision for Williams, and how do you want to see the college change and adapt over the next several years?
I saw a very kind and generous side of Williams, with many faculty and friends being there to support me and ensure I found my path. Generally speaking, however, people at the college during that time were not that diverse, and that could feel isolating sometimes. I am glad to see that Williams has become a much more diverse place than when I was there. I think being a place where everyone is welcomed, valued, and given a level playing field is really important to the academic mission. It’s critical that institutions of higher education where we devote ourselves to a life of learning, freedom, and new thought —places like Williams — lead the way to make racism, sexism, and inequity a relic of the past.