Syracuse University Magazine

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Theodore Williams

Hands-On Approach

For Theodore Williams ’12, experience is the key. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Williams, who received a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering from the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science (LCS), is an inveterate tinkerer. In high school, he earned money by fixing computers. Lately, he’s been repairing his car—both for the challenge and to avoid costly bills. “I like practicality,” he says. “Give me something to do. I’m a hands-on type person.”

A native of Kingston, Jamaica, who attended high school in the Bronx, Williams gained significant practical experience working for three years at SU’s Center for Environmental Systems Engineering. Most notably, he collaborated with the Syracuse-based Upstate Freshwater Institute on a study involving the role of zebra mussels in sequestering mercury in the Seneca River. The invasive species has long been considered a nuisance for disrupting native aquatic ecosystems and clogging pipes. But, according to Williams, their research revealed a positive impact of the mollusks’ presence: Areas populated by the zebra mussels contained lower concentrations of mercury. Through their filter-feeding process, the mussels accumulate the contaminant in their tissues and shells, but while tissues biodegrade and release mercury, the shells do not break down easily. “The zebra mussels are, indeed, capturing and sequestering mercury long-term through their shells,” he says. For Williams, the research led to conferences and presentations, including earning a first-place award for his poster presentation at the 2011 Emerging Researchers National Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. He also co-authored a paper pending publication, “Zebra Mussels: A Nuisance or A Valuable Asset to Aquatic Systems?” 

Williams, who minored in policy studies and worked summers at a Manhattan law firm, also logged time in a New York City Department of Environmental Protection lab, evaluating wastewater and sludge samples. Last fall, he expanded his educational focus, joining a nanoparticle research project in the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, where he plans to pursue a master’s degree this fall. Shifting gears from one activity to another is commonplace for Williams. An Our Time Has Come-Corning Scholar, he co-founded and served as president of the Society of Environmental Engineers at SU, earned certification as a scuba diver, volunteered as a tutor in the Wilson Park after-school program, and, as an LCS ambassador, conducted science experiments at Danforth Middle School. “It’s impressive to see how smart some of the kids are,” he says. “Chemistry is cool, and I was happy to show them experiments to get them interested in science.”

Williams attributes his interest in science and engineering to his passion for developing ideas and building things. Two years ago, he had his laptop ripped off, but out of that experience came an idea for creating a software application that would activate a camera on a stolen laptop, alerting the owner with an e-mail and pictures of the location. The idea earned him a $1,000 grant in LCS’s 2011 Invention and Creativity Competition, and he is now collaborating with two LCS graduate students who are developing the programming. As Williams talks about the project, more ideas pour forth. Like many people with innovative minds, he’s restless, ready to tackle more projects. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a farmer because I liked watching plants grow,” he says. “Engineering has that aspect to it—you get to watch things grow and develop over time.”   —Jay Cox