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The Road Less Traveled

Leslie Williams

UI Nursing Program Provides Alumna a ‘Solid Foundation’ for a Successful Career in Biotechnology

Even before she ever enrolled at the University of Iowa’s College of Nursing, Leslie Williams always knew she wanted to help people. Williams—who is now president and CEO of ImmusanT, a biotech company based in Cambridge, MA—has seen her career in health care go from the bedside to the lab … from directly administering patient care to delivering technological advancements in medicine.

She recently took time to talk about her educational experience at UI, why she initially went into nursing, as well as her current efforts to advance health care for the greater good.

When (and why) did you decide to enter the nursing profession?
My decision to enter the nursing profession was driven by my love and fascination with science and how the human body functions along with a strong desire to help people.

Why did you choose the University of Iowa for your education?
I chose the University of Iowa because I thought it was the best university in the state and it offered a nursing degree program in conjunction with a four-year Bachelors of Science program.  The University of Iowa had a reputation for being one of the top nursing programs in the country. 

I also felt the university would offer me the chance to grow and mature in an environment with many opportunities. When I interviewed at the university the school spirit was exciting and palpable.   

What do you remember most about your time as a UI College of Nursing student?
I was involved with many things on campus but what I recall most as a nursing student was the summer program I did at UIHC in the operating rooms. My curiosity in physiology and the human body was piqued. Another thing that was significant for me as a student was being a student leader at Progressive Nursing Day which was held in Boston, MA. This experience broadened my thinking.

Did you know back then what you wanted to do with your degree?
I knew that I wanted to make a difference and wanted to advance my degree, but I did not know what path I would take. I think the purpose of a university experience is to broaden the horizons of its students and to prepare them for the many opportunities which they will encounter.  Philosophically, I see the role of the university as opening a doorway to a maze with many different paths and opportunities to adulthood and a career.

How has this changed over time?
My nursing background and my UI experience gave me the tools to navigate the different pathways to my current career as a leader in biotechnology and entrepreneurship. Although I found nursing to be very rewarding, I knew I wanted more. After leaving UI, I went to Duke University and worked in the Acute Cardiac Unit for two years. During this time I was recruited to work for GlaxoSmithKline. This started my gradual transition away from direct patient care to becoming more involved with delivering technology to advance medicine.   

How did your educational experiences at UI enhance your preparations for entering the profession?
UI has a great nursing program which does a fantastic job of preparing its students for a nursing career. However, the entire UI experience was so much greater than just learning necessary skills of nursing. It allowed me to develop as a person and prepared me for a lifetime of learning, questioning, pushing my horizons and always striving for excellence.

What role (if any) did your educational background play in where you are today?
UI laid the foundation and opened the door to an amazing array of opportunities for me. I always loved learning and UI nurtured this love. The individuals I encountered while at the University of Iowa broadened my horizons and further ignited my curiosity. The university as a whole drove my desire to learn through multiple modalities. I learned through books and experienced faculty, but I also learned from life lessons … from my role as a Resident Advisor, to traveling to sporting events (including the Rose Bowl) and nursing conferences, to countless interactions with patients, physicians and other health care professionals … they all played a role in my educational experiences at the university. 

After leaving the University of Iowa and while working as a nurse I pursued my interests with additional science course work. Later, after transitioning from direct patient care to biotechnology and business I earned an MBA at Washington University in St. Louis.

In short I left the University of Iowa as “a work in progress” with the realization that growth, learning and achievement are lifetime endeavors.

What words of advice would you give to incoming nursing students?
Think big and think broadly. Instead of thinking of your education as funneling your interests, think of it as opening the door to a maze with a plethora of opportunities only limited by your desires, drive and imagination. Finally, always strive for excellence and do not be content with the status quo.

What do you believe has changed the most for nursing professionals over the years?
Although I am not involved in nursing today, the challenges in health care transcend all health care providers, suppliers, as well as developing biotechnology companies. The challenges will be to provide quality health care in a fiscally responsible fashion. Primary health care providers will need to develop systems to improve quality of care while at the same time capping costs. New technology will need to not only improve health care but also deliver economies over current therapies. Developing “me too” drugs which are on patent and are higher cost is not a viable course for today’s biotechnology entrepreneurs. It is critical to understand the unmet needs in medicine and nursing provided me with a direct perspective of patients. The goal is to develop disruptive, game changing technologies which address significant unmet needs.

How are you involved in nursing today?
I am not involved in nursing care. However, I do work with health care providers and patient advocate groups to educate people about Celiac disease.  

What’s next (personally or professionally) for Leslie Williams?
Professionally, I, along with my team, am focused on the clinical development of a therapeutic vaccine, Nexvax2, and companion diagnostic to treat patients with Celiac disease. We hope to be able to improve the quality of life for patients and their families. We plan to leverage our understanding in Celiac disease to impacting other autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 Diabetes.  

Personally, my husband and I are focused on raising strong daughters who are driven to making a difference in the world and loving what they do.

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Leslie Williams has more than 20 years of industry experience in health care, management, commercial product development and marketing. In 2010, she founded ImmusanT, Inc. where she currently serves as director, president & CEO. Williams holds an MBA from Washington University and earned a BSN degree (with honors) from the University of Iowa. Before entering the health care product development industry, she was a critical care nurse at Duke University, Medical College of Virginia and at the University of Iowa.

About ImmusanT
ImmusanT Inc., a privately held biotech company based in Cambridge, MA, is revolutionizing the diagnosis and treatment of Celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disease triggered by the consumption of foods containing gluten. Celiac affects approximately 1 percent of the population and currently has no pharmacological treatment. More information can be found at

Posted On: 
Apr 25th, 2014