Nobel Laureate: 'There Still Is Space for a Small Scientist With a Good Idea'

November 5, 2009 — Nobel Laureate Oliver Smithies on Thursday met with and gave a talk to a group of University of Virginia bioscience leaders and students during an intimate lunchtime event in the Lower West Oval Room at the Rotunda.

He spoke about his career and how the three factors of chance, opportunity and planning led to major breakthroughs in bioscience.

The Excellence Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Smithies is a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He was cited for discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice through the use of embryonic stem cells.

His work has changed the science of genetic medicine and laid the foundation for research into gene therapy.

Dr. Ariel Gomez, a U.Va. professor of medicine and former vice president for research, arranged the visit with Smithies. The two are friends and periodically have collaborated.

In his introductory remarks, Gomez described Smithies as "an enthusiastic mentor and pursuer of truth who makes us better thinkers and scientists." He said that Smithies' long and distinguished career is explained by something Smithies once said: "There is so much to know, and it's so much fun knowing it."

During his career Smithies pursued different avenues, which he said sometimes led to chance discoveries that resulted in unexpected research opportunities, capitalized on through planning. Throughout his career, he said he has always remained open to new directions.

He periodically showed slides of copied pages from his notebooks where he had made new insights.

He finished his talk with a slide that read, "What's on the next page?" That followed with, "I don't know." Followed by, "That's what makes science exciting." Which was followed by laughter and warm applause from the audience.

He took a question from the audience regarding a current trend toward directed research. Smithies said that some of the biggest scientific challenges, such as the human genome project, must be accomplished through directed research.

But, "a new idea doesn't come from a committee," he said. "It comes from an individual with an idea. I consider myself a small scientist. There still is space for a small scientist with a good idea."

Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research who hosted the event, presented Smithies with a Jefferson cup, as Jefferson himself did when hosting distinguished guests at Monticello.

Smithies received the cup, smiled and said he could fill it with something somewhat potent, such as sake.

Skalak said he hopes to periodically host similar such events for the broader University community, bringing "distinguished thought leaders to discuss a range of topics."

Maureen Bjerke, a Ph.D. student in cell biology, attended the event at the invitation of her mentor, cell biology professor Douglas DeSimone. She said Smithies' talk helped her to see how both successes and failures in science can shape a career.

"It was interesting how he was able to take the good and the bad and incorporate it into discovery," she said. "Seeing a researcher of his stature gives me a sense of the progression of science, how great ideas can come to be."

Christine Thisse, professor of cell biology, said Smithies' career is an encouraging example for all science students. "He's a visionary. He shows that if you have an idea, go for it and see where it leads."

— By Fariss Samarrai