Nobel Laureate Initiates Symposia for Student Scientists

Posted on June 3, 2008  Comments (1)

The video shows a portion of Oliver Smithies’ Nobel acceptance lecture. See the rest of the speech, and more info, on the Nobel Prize site.

As an undergraduate student at Oxford University in the 1940s, Oliver Smithies attended a series of lectures by Linus Pauling, one of the most influential chemists of the 20th century. It was a powerful experience, one that sparked the young scientist’s ambitions and helped launch his own eminent career.

“It was tremendously inspiring,” says Smithies, one of three scientists who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2007. “People were sitting in the aisles to listen to him.”

Now Smithies, who was a genetics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1960-88, is taking it upon himself to expose a new generation of undergraduates to this sort of experience. Using the prize money that came with his Nobel Prize, Smithies is funding symposia at all four universities he has been affiliated with throughout his scientific career: Oxford, the University of Toronto, UW-Madison and the University of North Carolina, where he is currently the Excellence Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Each university will receive about $130,000 to get things started.

“He wants the symposium to be a day when we bring the very best in biology to campus to interact with the students,” says geneticist Fred Blattner, who is in charge of organizing the symposium at UW-Madison and who collaborated with Smithies when their careers paths overlapped in Wisconsin.

The first of two speakers at the UW-Madison’s inaugural Oliver Smithies Symposium will be Leroy Hood, director of the Institute for Systems Biology, located in Seattle. Hood is a pioneer of high-throughput technologies and was instrumental in developing the technology used to sequence the human genome. More recently, Hood has focused his efforts on systems biology, the field of science in which researchers create computer models to describe complex biological processes, such as the development of cancer in the body. He is also at the forefront of efforts to use computer models to help doctors tailor drugs and dosages to an individual’s genetic makeup.

“Having Lee Hood come to campus is exactly the type of experience Oliver and I are trying to bring to students through the Smithies Symposium,” explains Blattner. “We want to have the visionary spirits putting forward their unique approaches to science: sharing, listening and inspiring.”

Smithies himself will give the second talk that day. In part, his lecture will cover his Nobel Award-winning contributions to gene targeting, the widely used technology that allows researchers alter the genomes of mice – by adding or subtracting specific genes – to make mammalian models of human disease. Already, more than 500 disease models have been created this way, giving scientists a safe way to study and search for treatments to Alzheimer’s, heart disease, various cancers and many other human conditions. Much of Smithies’s groundbreaking work in this area was performed while he was at UW-Madison.

“When these distinguished scientists give their talks, I’d like to hear them talk about more than just the marvelous things they are doing now at the pinnacle of their careers, but about when they were young and how they [persevered] to make a big discovery or invention,” says Smithies. “That’s more relevant to students at the early stage of their careers.

“I’d like to tell the students what it was like at the beginning of my career. For instance, as far as I know, nobody ever referred to my [doctoral] thesis. Nobody ever used the method I developed.” Those are comforting words indeed for young scientists delving into the intricacies and minutiae of basic research.

Related: 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or MedicineNobel Laureates Speaking to High School in JapanChildren’s view of Scientists in EnglandWebcasts by Chemistry and Physics Nobel Laureates2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

One Response to “Nobel Laureate Initiates Symposia for Student Scientists”

  1. Curious Cat Science Blog » The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008
    October 8th, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

    “The remarkable brightly glowing green fluorescent protein… has become one of the most important tools used in contemporary bioscience…”

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