WSU Vancouver alumna Imee Williams lands Fulbright Scholarship to research in the Philippines

MEDIA: April Seehafer, WSU Distinguished Scholarships Program director, 509-335-8239,

Fulbright 2018 winner Imee Williams.PULLMAN, Wash.—Washington State University Vancouver neuroscience alumna and future physician Imee Williams has received a 2018 Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant to investigate sociocultural aspects surrounding families raising children with disabilities in the Philippines.

“Being a Fulbright Scholar is a great honor for me personally, and it is certain to open doors for me in my native country and lead to opportunities to improve lives there,” said Williams.

“Imee spent her early childhood in the Philippines and is passionate about improving the quality of healthcare, living conditions, and level of respect for disabled children,” said April Seehafer, director of the WSU Distinguished Scholarships Program. “Her Fulbright will go a tremendous distance to support her interests and efforts.”

Specifically, Williams plans to explore the influence of family support and perceptions on intervention outcomes for children with cerebral palsy. She will work with an education professor at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, northeast of Manila.

“Through my research, I will identify barriers to the care of the children, and articulate a message of hope to their vulnerable families,” she said.

Early Goals

Williams was only five years old when her family moved from the Philippines to America to escape terrorists. She is the youngest of the four children born to Donald and Jorie Williams, residents of Portland, Oreg. Today, Williams’s brother Geoffrey lives in Oregon, Donnie serves in the U.S. Army, and Benjamin—who has a mental disorder—lives with their parents.

“The discrimination and stigmas my family faced (related to Benjamin) shifted my views on mental health, and fueled my passion for medicine and research,” wrote Williams in her Fulbright essay. As a teen she spent long hours in public libraries researching psychiatric and neurological disorders, and asking questions of her brother’s doctors.

“I was curious, and I have a heart for those with disabilities.”

She determined that helping others was of top priority to her, and she set a goal to become a doctor. Over the years, she has honed her plan, thanks to new ideas and knowledge gained through jobs, an internship, laboratory and clinical experiences, and, of course, college courses and research.

Heading into her Fulbright, she has firm plans to build a career as a pediatric neurologist, work for a non-profit hospital in the U.S., and open a free medical clinic in the Philippines for underprivileged children with neurodevelopmental disorders.

Research to Meet a Need

“It’s important to understand the barriers that influence parental attitudes and decisions to care for and support their child with special needs so that the local government agencies and healthcare professionals may help to improve the quality of delivery and planning of services,” Williams wrote in her Fulbright application.

“People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the world. There are more than five million children with disabilities in the Philippines, of whom only one percent receive proper diagnosis and treatment. Cerebral palsy is the most common childhood motor disability and currently affects more than 2 million Filipinos.

“The stigma of mental and physical disability continues to thrive (there), where the lack of public knowledge and understanding generates shame and discrimination for many families. Denial among family members leaves neurodevelopmental disorders undiagnosed and unaddressed, leading to lifelong consequences.”

Williams said she intends that her research will help to change attitudes and instigate actions.

People-focused Experiences

In the summer of her first year of college, Williams was accepted into the Summer Health Professions Education Program for low-income students at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine in Seattle. There she learned that becoming a physician could be more than a dream—it was a possibility, and that attending college was a necessity.

She first attended Portland State University, and then earned her Associate’s Degree in pre-medicine across the Columbia River at Vancouver, Wash.’s Clark College. She transferred to WSU Vancouver and first majored in biology before switching to neuroscience, a subject that “made me think more outside the box.” She graduated in 2017.

It also prompted her to conduct research as an undergraduate student. At the Devers Eye Clinic’s Legacy Research Institute in Portland, she works with mentor Claude Burgoyne, M.D., a glaucoma clinician and surgeon, senior scientist, and professor of ophthalmology. Williams is a research assistant in a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded neuroscience laboratory specializing in the mechanisms of glaucomatous vision loss.

Burgoyne served as an advisor for Williams’s research, titled “Quantitative Method for Tissue-Specific Four-Wavelength Immunohistochemistry within Sagittal Sections of Non-human Primates.” She won first place for an undergraduate poster presentation on the topic at WSU Vancouver’s 2017 Research Showcase.

She is also an avid volunteer, both in her home community and in the Philippines. Williams—who is also an award-winning pianist—has a diversity of experience as a vision screener, teacher, and choir accompanist. During a six-month study abroad experience to the Philippines in 2014, she made a point to help disabled orphans at the non-profit Chosen Children Village (CCV) south of Manila.

“All of the children there have a mental and/or physical challenge, and were abandoned by their families,” said Williams. “They called me ‘Mama Imee.’ My days were spent feeding the children, singing songs, and playing games with them. By fostering the love and care they deserved, I helped create a sense of belonging for the children and, for me, it felt as if they were my family.

“During my upcoming Fulbright experience, I will return to CCV as a volunteer and reconnect with that community.”

Fulbright During Her Gap Year

Planning to attend medical school in 2019, Williams will spend the gap year between earning her bachelor’s degree and professional school on her Fulbright. This August, she will arrive at UP-Diliman to work with mentor Marie Grace A. Gomez, an associate professor in the College of Education with doctoral degrees in special education and guidance.

Gomez has close contacts with the special needs community, a cerebral palsy rehabilitation center, and the National Council on Disability Affairs, which Williams said will help her make contacts at four organizations.

Though the native language of Tagalog is spoken in Williams’s family home, she said she is not proficient in it. She plans to formally study the language while at UP-Diliman, and speak it when she interviews family caregivers about disability causation, engagement in their child’s interventions, and awareness of the child’s disability rights. She will also assess children and record information about their self-care, mobility, and social functioning.

Gomez will supervise as Williams translates interviews from Tagalog into English. Before returning to the U.S., Williams will present her research to professionals at medical and national meetings and at academic conferences. That way, she believes she will reach professionals who will listen and learn from her research, and make changes.

“With the luxury of a higher education comes the responsibility to give back to society,” said WSU’s newest Fulbright. Through her work in the Philippines, she will do just that.

WSU’s Fulbright Recipients

Williams’s award brings the number of WSU students and recent graduates receiving a Fulbright to 61 since 1949, according to data on the national Fulbright website. The awards were begun in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, of Arkansas. Designed to increase mutual understanding between Americans and people of other countries, the Fulbright program is sponsored by the Dept. of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.