Cameron Williams, cheerleader for arts and sciences

June 1, 2007
Cameron Williams, cheerleader for arts and sciences

Les Todd

Junior Cameron Williams has three passions that some might consider counterintuitive, if not downright contradictory. She is a premed student who plans to specialize in oncology, an art-history major whose senior thesis is on the Dutch Baroque painter Pieter Saenredam, and a varsity cheerleader for the Blue Devils.

But Williams says she doesn't consider her overlapping interests that remarkable—or incongruous. "I know several students who are combining the physical sciences and humanities. It's great because it involves two separate parts of your brain." As for cheerleading, she says, the athleticism and physical conditioning the sport requires speak to a high level of focus and commitment among its participants.

"During the season, we are working out two hours a day, including intense physical training. More than half of our squad are premed or in engineering, and three [members] are Phi Beta Kappa."

Williams has known that she wanted to be a doctor since she was in middle school, although she can't pinpoint an exact reason why she's drawn to the field. She doesn't come from a long line of physicians; there are none in her immediate or extended family. Maybe it has something to do with her family's positive encounters with the physicians and staff members at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she grew up. Her sister's asthma required multiple trips to the hospital for treatment and monitoring, and Williams spent several days there recuperating from surgery to remove a cystic teratoma.

Her decision to pursue the premed path at Duke and her more recent choice of oncology as a specialty came down to two factors, she says. "I find premed courses fascinating—for instance, I genuinely enjoyed organic chemistry." Oncology, she continues, "is an area where you have a huge role in your patients' lives. You see them regularly, and you have a direct influence on how they perceive and deal with their illness." Williams has worked in the labs of two physician-researchers at Duke: Henry Friedman, James B. Powell Professor of neuro-oncology and a co-director of the Brain Tumor Center, and Vinod Prasad, an assistant professor of pediatrics who works in the division of blood and marrow transplantation. She has shadowed the doctors as they made rounds and conducted initial intake interviews with patients, among other duties.

Majoring in art history was never part of her long-range plan. But her high school offered no art-history courses, and she was curious about the field, she says. In her first semester at Duke, she decided to balance her calculus and accelerated chemistry classes with what she thought would be a "fun and relatively easy" introductory art-history class. It was fun, not so easy, and she was hooked. Since then, she's enrolled in classes on Cubism, avant-garde art movements during the 1950s and 1960s, visual culture and art of the Netherlands, and Chinese Buddhist art, among others.

Looking ahead to the summer, Williams will take the MCATs and apply to medical schools on the East Coast for admission in the fall of 2008. This coming fall, she'll take a course on the art of Medieval Southern Italy and an art-history methodology course; an English course on Shakespeare after 1600; a biological anatomy and anthropology course on the human body; and beginning golf. That's in addition to her ongoing volunteer efforts in a Durham elementary school, her involvement in Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, and cheerleading drills, which get under way well before the kickoff of the football season.

Despite her impressive array of interests and commitments, Williams says she sometimes looks back on her high-school activities with awe. She was a top student in the academically rigorous, two-year International Baccalaureate program; was active with the National Conference for Community and Justice's youth leadership program; and participated on two separate cheerleading squads, including a competitive all-star club team.

"I don't know how I did it," she says.