by Wayne Wood

If you set out to find a daughter that would be a bragging parent’s dream, you couldn’t do much better than Dr. Monica Williams.
She is a doctor doing cancer research.
She has traveled to Africa to take care of people in one of the poorest areas of the world.
And on top of that, for crying out loud, she is a Tennessee Titans cheerleader.
Williams is a research fellow in Radiology who is studying ways of imaging the prostate. Her research could lead to a non-invasive way to get information that currently requires a biopsy, and possibly diagnosing cancer at an earlier stage. It is work that has the potential to help a lot of people.
But she draws more attention by being a Titans cheerleader—a high-profile part-time job she has had for four years, since she was in medical school at Meharry.
“I was riding around listening to the radio and I heard about the tryouts. I went because I thought I’d make some friends. There were 350 girls there.”
Because the odds were so long, she was surprised when she was called and told she had been selected to the squad. Not that she is complaining.
“It’s great for me because I’ve been a dancer since I was four years old,” she says. She has also been interested in sports for a long time; she was even the manager of her high school’s basketball team.
But none of that could prepare anybody for what it feels like to run out in front of 70,000 frenzied football fans.
“The beginning of the game is so energizing,” she says. “We do a little prayer, and we run out for player introductions —we stand in two columns and the team runs between us. You think, ‘This is so cool.’”
Williams says the cheerleaders and players sometimes do joint appearances, but beyond that have little connection—fraternization between players and cheerleaders is against the rules.
But the cheerleaders do get a real insider’s look at the game — because they don’t cheer during play so they really do get to stand and watch the game.
“I wasn’t a huge football fan before I started [as a cheerleader],” Williams says. “Now I’m actually getting into football. I love football now.”

Doctoring the dolls

If her experience in dancing and sports at an early age led her to cheerleading, it’s the same with medicine; Williams says she was also drawn to the medical field from an early age.
“I used to doctor my dolls and animals in the neighborhood. For years and years I wanted to be a doctor.”
Williams was born in Nashville while her parents were students at Tennessee State University, but grew up in Danville, Ill. She graduated from Nashville’s Meharry Medical College after earning a bachelor’s degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
She has been at Vanderbilt about 15 months, since shortly after graduating from Meharry. She plans to do a residency in Radiology after her fellowship is over. Her research project, which is funded by a joint Vanderbilt-Meharry grant, is directed by Ronald Price, Ph.D., professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences at Vanderbilt, who she met through Dr. Charles DePriest, a Meharry radiologist.
“Almost all clinicians rely on some form of radiology. You have to know so much,” she says.
“The prostate problem I’m working on has a chance to change clinical care. I’m really excited about being here. I really enjoy research, which I didn’t know.”
“Monica is a joy to work with and it seems that she has endless energy,” Price says.
“She has become an accomplished operator of the research MRI machines and seems to thrive on the late night scanning sessions that are required by her projects. She is a tremendous communicator and is invaluable in helping us bridge the gap between the basic scientists and clinical researchers,” he says.

Africa opened eyes

In addition to a future career in radiology, Williams says a six-week stint at a World Health Organization clinic in Ndola, Zambia, in 1998 fueled in her an interest in reaching out in other ways. She worked with pregnant women and new mothers and did HIV screening in a country with one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world.
“Ultimately I’d like to do international health,” she says. “[The work in Zambia] opened my eyes to things I never knew existed.”
And about that proud parents part — she says her mom and dad, who are now divorced, are indeed proud of her, their only child. But she says her mom also wonders if it isn’t about time for her daughter to get more serious.
“At first my mom thought it was really cool that I was with the Titans,” she says. “Now she says, ‘Monica, you’re not going to do that again!’”

On the field at a Titans' game.
Williams hopes that the imaging research she does with MRI will change clinical care for patients with prostate cancer.

Calling Dr. Cheerleader

From cancer research to the sidelines at Titans games, Monica Williams’ resume is more interesting than yours