Distinguished Alumni Award


Leslie Jansa Williams 82BSN

2015 Achievement Award

Leslie Jansa Williams, 82BSN, has leveraged her rare blend of bedside manner and business savvy throughout her career as a former registered nurse, pharmaceutical sales and marketing leader, serial entrepreneur, and now CEO of biotechnology company, ImmusanTóan innovative organization dedicated to the development and delivery of technological advancements in medicine.

Raised in Gowrie, Iowa, Williams demonstrates a true dedication to the commercial development of early-stage medical products for patients with unmet clinical needs. Whether through hands-on work with patients, major drug companies, or the FDA, Williams has proven herself to be "a world-class professional who is talented, curious, [and] gifted," says UI College of Nursing Dean Rita Frantz. "Her commitment to improving the well-being of humankind is consistent with the tradition of the Iowa nurse."

"[The University of Iowa] nurtured the development of my character, fueled my curiosity, and gave me the wings to fly."

Williams says she grew her confidence and love for learning at the University of Iowa, the place that "nurtured the development of my character, fueled my curiosity, and gave me the wings to fly." Following graduation, she worked several years as a nurse, including two at UI Hospitals and Clinics, before taking on roles in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a sales representative and manager for a number of major global healthcare and pharmaceutical products companies, including Glaxo, Merck, and Ohmeda.

Williams established a reputation as an ambitious sales representative and business specialist, and continued to rise through various positions at several corporations after earning her MBA at Washington University in St. Louis. In 2004, she became CEO at respiratory technology company Ventaira Pharmaceuticals, where she led a massive reorganization that enabled the troubled company to be successfully sold.

Consulting work then took Williams to Battelle Ventures as a venture partner, where she sourced and evaluated early-stage technology companies as potential investment candidates and subsequently assisted them with strategy, management, and development. After leaving Battelle Ventures in 2009, Williams went on to co-found the biotech company Amplicea Therapeutics with a focus on transforming the way tumors are treated.

Currently as founder, director, and president of ImmusanT, Williams is on the brink of a major breakthrough for people with celiac disease. Thanks to her skilled guidance, the company garnered more than $34 million in venture financing and is in the process of advancing the clinical development of a revolutionary vaccine and diagnostic that will positively impact the health of millions of people around the world with celiac disease.

In every endeavor, Leslie Jansa Williams maintains "the highest level of energy, ethics, intelligence, and overall commitment to excellences that I have ever seen in one person" writes longtime colleague Chuck Bramlage, president and CEO of Pearl Therapeutics. "I have never in my career met someone I was so proud to have worked with as Leslie."

Williams is a member of the UI Alumni Associationís Old Capitol Club.


Volunteer Highlights
  • Director of the Capital Network, a nonprofit organization that provides education and assistance to entrepreneurs
  • Editorial advisory board member for Life Science Leader magazine
  • Leader of the board of directors for Hepregen, a company that promotes the development of new pharmaceuticals
  • Mentor in the Boston University Kindle Mentoring Program
  • Executive board member, UI College of Pharmacy

About Distinguished Alumni Awards

Since 1963, the University of Iowa has annually recognized accomplished alumni and friends with Distinguished Alumni Awards. Awards are presented in seven categories: Achievement, Service, Hickerson Recognition, Faculty, Staff, Recent Graduate, and Friend of the University.


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L.A.-based artist Charles Ray to receive CLAS Alumni Fellow award, give talks this month. Unpainted sculpture by Charles Ray, 1997, fiberglass and paint, 60x78x171 inches. Photograph by Josh White and courtesy of the Matthew Marks Gallery. Charles Ray (75BFA) was walking through the UI physics and astronomy department one day when he came across an inspiring scene. Ray, an art student whose curiosity extended far beyond the studio, hoped to hitch a ride out to the observatory for some evening stargazing. Instead, he found a group of students constructing a satellite bound for a space mission. "It just blew my mind," recalls Ray. Just as mind-blowing were the sculptures Ray was creating across the river, years before he would establish himself as one of the world's most important artists. For one physics-defying piece, he fashioned a 2,000-pound slab of concrete atop a slender tree trunk. For another, he dropped a massive wrecking ball onto a crumpled steel plate, as if Sputnik had just crashed outside the old Art Building. Charles Ray "It was such a formative experience for me," the Los Angeles-based sculptor says of his time in Iowa City. "It did something to my soul and my brain. Even though I was young, the university and my mentors gave me a great deal of independence. My curiosity was endless." A professor emeritus at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, Ray returns to campus this month to speak and receive the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Alumni Fellow award. Rather than just waxing nostalgic about his time at Iowa, Ray has organized a three-day lecture series April 16-18 with two fellow art scholars. Iowa native Graham Harman, a philosophy professor at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, will open the series by discussing his theory of aesthetics known as object-oriented ontology. On the second day, Ray will speak about the nature of sculptural objects. And Richard Neer, an art historian at the University of Chicago, will bookend the series by lecturing on the question of provenance, or art's origin. Ray will also give a separate public lecture April 17 in Art Building West titled "My Soul is an Object." Recognized as one of the leading artists of his generation, Ray is known for his strange and enigmatic sculptures so loaded with nods to the past that they've been called "catnip for art historians." His 2014 Horse and Rider, for example, is a 10-ton solid stainless steel work in the tradition of a war memorial, but depicts the artist slouch-shouldered atop a weary nag. Ray is also famous for his wry re-imaginings of familiar objects, like the 47-foot-long replica of a red toy fire truck that he parked in front of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art for a 1993 biennial exhibition. Ray and his studio team often spend years working on a given piece, which can fetch as much as seven figures at auction. His sculptures can be found at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among other major U.S. museums. Ray is currently preparing for a retrospective show in Paris next year?one of several upcoming international exhibitions. Isabel Barbuzza, UI associate professor of sculpture, describes Ray's work as beautiful and witty, while using scale in unexpected ways. Ray's 8-foot-tall Boy with Frog?commissioned for a prominent spot in Venice, Italy, then removed after some controversy (a version now stands outside the Getty Museum in Los Angeles)?is among Barbuzza's favorites. "His sculptures have a presence you can only see when you're in front of the work," she says. "They're very moving, and to me it's interesting what happens with scale?the viewer relates to the piece in a very profound way." Steve McGuire (83MA, 90PhD), director of the School of Art and Art History, says few others have contributed more to contemporary art than Ray. "This is a big deal for us to be able to celebrate his career," McGuire says of presenting Ray with the alumni fellow award. "I think it's pretty meaningful to him, and of course it's really meaningful for our school." A Chicago native, Ray arrived at Iowa as a gifted artist but hardly a model student. Ray's dyslexia made schoolwork a chore, and his parents had sent him to military school with the hopes of straightening out his academics. It was at the UI, however, where he finally found his language in the studio and, in turn, his footing in the classroom. "Through the syntax of sculpture, I could express myself intellectually for the first time," Ray says. "That gave me a kind of confidence." Ray studied under UI art school pillars like Wallace Tomasini, Julius Schmidt, and Hans Breder. But it was his bond with Roland Brenner?a South African professor and former pupil of sculptor Anthony Caro?that proved to be the most influential. Ray still remembers his first sculpture in Brenner's class, a steel configuration with long stems and discs at the end. Its bouquet-like resemblance didn't sit well with Brenner. "That showed me you made something, but didn't want to discover something," Ray recalls Brenner telling him. "Don't ever do that in my class again." The two would become lifelong friends. Iowa City is a different place today than the 1970s, particularly the transformation of the arts campus after the flood of 2008, Ray says. Still, his visits back to campus over the years always remind him of those crisp and clear Iowa nights at the observatory and gazing out the studio window while exploring the frontiers of sculpture. "It feels like you can see right through the galaxy when you look up," Ray says. Handheld bird by Charles Ray, 2006, painted steel, 2x4x3 inches The UI is home to six pieces by Ray, all found in the Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building and displayed through the university's Art on Campus program. Among them is Handheld bird, a tiny but ornate piece depicting a creature in an embryonic state. Lunchtime Lecture Series What: College of Liberal Arts and Sciences fellow Charles Ray and two guest art scholars?Graham Harman and Richard Neer?will deliver a series of public lectures this month at the UI. When, where: 12:20 p.m. April 16?18 at Art Building West, room 240, 141 N. Riverside Drive, Iowa City More information: events.uiowa.edu/26915 My Soul is an Object: Artist Talk with Charles Ray What: A public lecture by renowned sculptor and UI alumnus Charles Ray When, where: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 17, at Art Building West, room 240, 141 N. Riverside Drive, Iowa City More about Ray: charlesraysculpture.com/ Support the UI School of Art and Art History

Past Dance Marathon participants who spent 24 hours on their feet For The Kids (FTK) are invited to join the Dance Marathon Alumni Group (DMAG).

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