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Savannah Williams, a research assistant in VUMC’s Department of  Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, never behaved like the typical little girls in her neighborhood in Nashville. As a result, she’s a 26-year-old marine biologist who plays the cello.
She didn’t find her inspiration from anyone she knew in her lower-income community. Instead, her favorite pastime as a kid was sitting alone watching arts and sciences programs on public television.
“One day I was watching a program on PBS that introduced young artists, and a boy was playing the cello so beautifully. I said if I ever get the chance to learn to play a musical instrument, that’s what I’m going to do,” Williams recalled.
In 5th grade, she saw her chance. With a determination that has stayed with her, she took advantage of  the W.O. Smith/Nashville Community Music School, a local music school program that provides financially disadvantaged students with free musical instruments and low-cost lessons from area volunteer musicians and teachers.
After a couple of years, she entered a program called the Nashville Career Advancement Center’s (NCAC) Summer Youth Employment that gave young teens jobs. Hers was with the Development and Housing Agency (MDHA). She saved up and found a great deal to buy her own cello for $500—a lot of money for anybody, but certainly for a teen whose single mom was raising seven children.
Williams has been playing cello ever since.
“No one from my neighborhood was in the same music program. But I was doing something I liked. I was keeping out of trouble and having great experiences in the process. Being there opened a lot of doors for me. I played at different events and met people who would ask me about my career endeavors. I got to travel with the ensemble and see new venues,” Williams said.
One of the doors that opened as a result of the career advancement program led to her next atypical move— learning to swim and scuba dive, which gave her a running start on her ultimate career path. No one in her family or community, she says, had ever been near an ocean.
As part of the program, every Friday a professional would come speak to the students about career paths. One such person was Kenneth Stewart, co-founder of the Tennessee Aquatic Project and Development Group Inc (TAP).
“Ken and his son, Kye, came in and spoke to us about their recent trip to Egypt. Kye was my age, about 12 or 13, and he told us about his first big dive. He was doing something most of us would not do,” Williams said. The idea of expanding her knowledge of the world through travel grabbed her imagination. She approached Ken at the end of his presentation.
“I relentlessly called him throughout the summer. He later said I was the only student in his three years of presenting to this group to ever take him up on his offer and to bug him about wanting to join the program. I did not know how to swim, had never been near a large body of water. But I wanted to see the world. I knew there was more out there than what’s in my neighborhood. When he said I could travel and only learn to dive if I wanted to, I said ‘That’s for me.’ I got the call from him at the end of the summer when school started.”

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