Heidi Williams’s dad helped with her high school science-fair projects by driving her two hours from their North Dakota town to get books on World War II German cryptography. After studying up, she would present new ways to crack the cipher.
These days, Williams is trying to help scientists as they unlock the secrets of a different code: the human genome. The 32-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist is examining health-care innovation with a $430,000 National Science Foundation CAREER grant, an award given to “exceptionally promising” junior faculty who excel as educators and researchers.
Williams’ 2010 Ph.D. dissertation was the first empirical study to show that one company’s rights to gene data had hindered scientific development, said Harvard University economist Lawrence Katz. It was cited in multiple briefs during a Supreme Court case that ended in June, when justices ruled to restrict companies’ ability to patent human gene sequences.
“No one directly knew these things,” said Katz, who advised Williams on the research while she was getting her doctorate in economics at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It is affecting how people think about intellectual property. It fed into a rapidly changing area of policy.”
Williams is driven by a desire to seek out and try to discover solutions to barriers stalling health-care breakthroughs, she said in an interview from Stanford University in California, where she is on academic leave for a year to research and network with scholars. A working paper she and colleagues circulated in August found that 20-year patent terms encouraged companies to focus on advanced-stage cancers, because clinical trials are shorter and drugs can be brought to market more quickly. Preventative or early-stage treatments require longer clinical trials, leaving less time for exclusive production.
Now, her focus is on determining how patent rules alter gene-related innovation.
“Ever since the sequencing of the human genome, there has been a sense that the science hasn’t panned out quite as quickly as people had hoped,” Williams said. How economics drives innovation has long interested her, she said, and the lack of empirical data on gene-related development made the topic a natural fit.
“It could be that the economic incentives haven’t been aligned appropriately, and that’s been holding back the science,” she said.
As of 2009, portions of the human genome sequenced by closely held Celera Corp. had produced 20 percent to 30 percent fewer research papers and medical discoveries than genes first mapped by the Human Genome Project, Williams showed in her Ph.D. project. Celera’s genes were covered by short-term intellectual-property protections lasting as long as two years, while the project’s were open-access.
Groups, including scholars with the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, cited the study as the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether human genes can be patented. The case challenged seven patents owned by or licensed to Salt Lake City, Utah-based biotechnology company Myriad Genetics Inc. on genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer. It ended in a ruling that human genes can’t be patented, though synthetically produced genetic material can have legal protections.
While Williams’s 2010 Harvard paper examined a type of intellectual-property protection weaker than a patent, it is the most definitive evidence showing that giving a company rights to a gene may have long-lasting effects on innovation, Katz said.
The need for more evidence is fueling her current project, Williams said. Funded by the grant, she and assistants are tracking patents’ effects on developments in genomics and building an open-source database to better enable others to follow suit.
Williams, who was raised in Williston, North Dakota, by an optometrist father and a social-worker mother, wasn’t always set on economics. A numbers aficionado, she headed east in 1999 to study math at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College -- which she said she favored because it’s “in the middle of nowhere” and big-city life seemed overwhelming.
Dartmouth changed Williams’s direction. There, she first encountered work by Harvard economist Michael Kremer, who has examined how policy could spur drug studies on neglected diseases.
“As soon as I found this kind of research, I thought, this is exactly what I want to do,” she said. Though she had enjoyed a National Security Agency internship that was math-focused, economics had clearer impact, she said.
Williams knew she wanted to go to graduate school and applied for many scholarships. One resulted in her being named among Glamour Magazine’s 2002 ‘Top 10 College Women.’ Another application landed her a spot as a Rhodes Scholar in 2003, enabling her to study development economics at Oxford University.
Before she left for the U.K. and after she returned, she worked as Kremer’s research assistant. While at Oxford, she contacted Amy Finkelstein, hoping to discuss a paper Finkelstein, now an economist at MIT in Cambridge, had written. The pair got together in Massachusetts during a school break.
“I remember going out to lunch with her that winter, some cold gray day in Cambridge, and we met at a greasy Chinese diner,” said Finkelstein. Despite the dreary setting, “she was fantastic” and had read and connected with Finkelstein’s work. Williams later became Finkelstein’s research assistant, and when she attended Harvard, Finkelstein advised Williams on her Ph.D. dissertation alongside Katz and Harvard economist David Cutler.
“She’s really unique in our profession in her ability to master complex and overwhelming details,” said Finkelstein, who won the 2012 John Bates Clark award for economists under 40. Winners have often gone on to receive the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. “She was the kind of student who made you think you were doing something magical with advising.”
Willams’s academic career hasn’t been without challenges: While getting her doctorate, she struggled to speak loudly enough to present research and eventually teach, both she and Katz said.
“She seems like someone from North Dakota, even to the point of needing a little coaching in projecting her voice,” Katz said, adding that she was articulate, just quiet.
She excelled in research, though, and Williams’s 2010 thesis was “a big-deal paper, especially for someone who was a graduate student,” said Robert Cook-Deegan, a research professor at the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who met Williams after admiring her Ph.D. research and contacting her.
Going forward, Williams’ evolving body of work will “contribute in a really important way to the way economists think about the innovation process,” said James Poterba, president of the National Bureau of Economic Research, where Williams has been a pre-doctoral, post-doctoral and faculty research fellow. “That’s a very important set of issues, not just for the U.S. but to the global economy.”
Poterba helped to recruit Williams to MIT, where she became an assistant professor in 2011, and assisted in her application for the CAREER grant, which he called “one of the most important honors a researcher can receive. It’s an enormous vote of confidence for someone starting out.”
For now, Williams is busy making good on that show of faith, as she pursues her studies and constructs the database. She also enjoys her time spent guiding younger economists, she said.
“She’s just a really impressive personal and professional role model,” according to Sally Hudson, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate whom she advises. Williams takes visible interest in others’ academic work, does interesting research herself and is always available to students, Hudson said.
Eventually, Williams said, she and husband Dan Fetter, an economic historian and applied microeconomist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, would like to start a family. The couple married in 2010 after meeting through mutual friends in Boston when she was working as a research assistant and he was studying at Harvard. Williams also may be interested in influencing policy more directly, though she said she’s not sure if this means moving to Washington.
Such a role would be good news for academics and policy makers alike, if you ask Cook-Deegan.
“We’re all hoping that a Heidi Williams will become the next Paul Romer or the next Kenneth Arrow,” said Cook-Deegan, who has advised the Department of Health and Human Services on gene patenting and licensing. Romer, now a New York University economist, won the 2002 H.C. Recktenwald Prize in Economics for his work on sustainable economic growth. Arrow, now at Stanford, won a Nobel Prize in 1972.
“For those of us who do work that is intended to affect public policy, which is almost all the stuff I do, economists like Heidi are incredibly valuable,” Cook-Deegan said.