Editor’s note: Each year, Raleigh Metro Magazine’s “Who’s Who” list recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the quality of life from the Triangle to the Coast. The recently published list for 2007 “once again reflects who we are and why we are indeed a world-class region,” says Bernie Reeves, the magazine’s editor and publisher. Several of the profiles were written by Rick Smith, a senior writer for Metro and editor of WRAL Local Tech Wire. The profiles written by Smith are reprinted with the permission of Metro.
CHAPEL HILL — Winning the Nobel Prize has not changed Oliver Smithies one little bit.
“None of that nonsense,” the 82-year-old professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said when an admirer began thanking him for the honor of a meeting.
His voice still rings with a delightful British accent signifying where he studied and launched his scientific research career into stem cells, a path that ultimately led him to Chapel Hill from the University of Wisconsin 19 years ago. The timbre is strong, too, reflecting the physique of a man who, despite his years, maintains a strenuous schedule and flies airplanes whenever he gets the chance.
“I come to work seven days a week, and I just passed my flight review,” he said proudly. In other words, he retained his pilot’s license — something he values highly.
Smithies’ passion for flight and aircraft (he owns one now and at one time had four) reflects very closely his pursuit of knowledge that earned him the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine along with fellow researchers Mario Capecchi of The University of Utah’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Sir Martin J. Evans of the United Kingdom. The three were recognized “for their discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells.” Their work has contributed to the increasing use of gene therapy in medical science today.
In his Nobel acceptance speech delivered in December, Smithies remembered learning to fly late in life.
“[Field Morey] taught me to fly 30 years ago, a difficult task because I was over 50 years of age,” Smithies said. “But he taught me something more important than flying — namely that it is possible to overcome fear with knowledge!
“The same lesson applies to scientists — the fear of failing, which many scientists have when trying something new, can be overcome in the same way — with knowledge!”
A native of Yorkshire, England, he fell in love with science, math and the desire to invent as a child. He graduated with honors from Oxford in 1946 and earned a doctorate in biochemistry there in 1951.
Smithies insisted in an interview with Metro that he has not been affected by the Nobel. He is simply too busy with his pioneering work into genetics and stem cells to let even one of the world’s most prestigious honors go to his head.
“I already had various things to do, such as a grant application that was turned down, and I am preparing to submit it again with new data,” Smithies said. “There are things related to my work I am trying to concentrate on doing. I still have work to do.”
A quick trip to Washington for a photo opportunity with President Bush and an “extravaganza,” as he put it, that the Swedish and Norwegian Embassies sponsored prior to the Nobel presentation in Stockholm, took him away from the lab.
Yet, he did admit that the Nobel meant much to him beyond the international recognition and the more than $1 million prize money.
“It is marvelous,” he said, “to be honored by my fellow scientists.”
Awards are nothing new for Smithies, however. In 2001, he received the Lasker Award, one of medical science’s most treasured honors.
Smithies is working in a controversial field, as he well knows, involving the ongoing debate about use of embryonic stem cells. A recent advance in using other stem cells could provide an alternative to use of human embryos in the search for cures to various diseases, Smithies acknowledged.
However, he added, “I like to think that rather than destroying life in using embryonic stem cells, that we are preserving life. We could be contributing to future life for a long time.”
Smithies believes that the use of stem cells from a patient to treat the disease afflicting them holds promise. “You can put them back into the patient without the problem of rejection,” he explained. “That’s the biggest advantage. … There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s very promising.”
Devotion to science runs strongly in the Smithies household. His wife of more than 20 years, Dr. Nobuyo Maeda, is distinguished professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UNC.
And Smithies has no intention whatsoever to slow down.
“I’ll be retired,” he said, “when I get put 6 feet under!”
Coming Wednesday: Monica Doss, president of Council for Entrepreneurial Development.