In Nobel lecture, MU professor emeritus Smith credits community

University of Missouri Professor Emeritus George Smith’s Nobel Prize lecture may have been geared toward a general audience, but it didn’t shy away from scientific detail. The crowd in the Aula Magna Hall on Saturday in Stockholm University was a mix of fellow laureates and their guests, students of Stockholm University and the general public.

“When this award was announced on October 3, my friends who are actual chemists were surprised to learn that I was one too,” Smith, an MU Curators Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences, joked to the crowd.

The Nobel Foundation does not award a prize in biology. Smith’s studies of phage display span disciplinary focuses, so he and Sir Gregory Winter of Cambridge University share half of the prize in chemistry, with Frances Arnold of the California Institute of Technology accepting the other half.

Smith used the beginning of his allotted 25 minutes to thank those who assisted in the development of his research. He showed a diagram of the various types of scientists who contributed in some aspect to phage display, spanning from molecular biologists to immunologists.

“I feel that I’m accepting this award as a representative of my science community,” Smith said. “And I say ‘my science community’ because I belong to the community, not because the community belongs to me.”

Smith discovered the possibility of phage display while on sabbatical at Duke University in 1985. A week later, he and his wife, Marjorie Sable, drove back to Columbia, where he shifted the focus of his lab work and settled into his award-winning research. The rest is history.

Smith was able to bring 14 guests to Stockholm, including some former students who worked in his lab during their graduate studies. Leslie Matthews, who did research with Smith, said the Nobel laureate is successful because of his passion and work ethic.

“He was very organized and meticulous and very, very insistent on getting it right.” Matthews said. “He would not be satisfied with anything less than 100 percent confidence in the answer. And that was a really important lesson I learned in his lab that sort of carries forth into what I do now.”

Matthews is now an environmental biologist studying the ecological status of lakes and ponds. The work is a far cry from molecular biology, but she said Smith sculpted her understanding of what it takes to be a good scientist.

“He demanded hard work, but he worked really hard himself, and it was hard not to respect him,” Matthews said.

Jamie Scott, another guest of Smith’s, worked with him twice in her career, first while working on her doctoral degree, then again as a postdoctoral fellow. She said collaborating with Smith was gratifying because of his willingness for creative dialogue.

“Typically in the afternoon we would usually sit around, or maybe at lunch, and talk a lot about the project or what’s going on in science and come up with ideas about things and usually go, ‘No, that won’t work,’” Scott said. “That was pretty great.”

Scott said learning from Smith’s attitude toward difficulties in the lab helped her face challenges in her own research.

“You just slog through it, and you make mistakes and realize that approach won’t work, and you think of another,” Scott said. “That’s part of the reason why, on pretty much a daily basis, there was lots of conversation. What can you imagine you can do to get around a problem?”

Smith is quick to credit those who preceded him, as well as those who worked alongside him, but in Saturday’s lecture, he also emphasized the importance of personal insight and how their combination could lead to new discoveries including those of his co-laureate, Winter.

“I think it may be a little doubtful that phage display was an invention,” Smith said. “I know that it looks like that from the outside, but from the inside, from my point of view, phage display, it was a series of small incremental advances from the knowledge that I had.”

On Monday, Smith and his fellow laureates receive the Nobel Medal and Diploma from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

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