Transcript from an interview with George P. Smith

Interview with George P. Smith on 6 December 2018 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

I’m George Smith and I’m one of the recipients of the Chemistry Prize in 2018.

Where do you get your passion for science?

George P. Smith: Originally I would say that I had a passion for nature, especially animals. Apparently I broke my parents in going to the Bronx Zoo and stood for like half an hour watching alligators and crocodiles that never moved and they needed to have a lot of patience with me. In 1949, when I was eight years old, we went on a vacation in Maine in the northeast of the United States. The place was like alive with snakes and I caught my first snake, a green snake, and paraded into the living room where my mother was entertaining a tea party of the very sort of like proper ladies of the neighbourhood who appropriately screeched and so on. I became very interested in snakes at that point. In fact, our family lived in Japan during the Korean War from 1952 to 1954. I and a friend, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, were both lovers of snakes and there were so many wonderful snakes in Japan at the time. So I thought I was going to be a herpetologist when I grew up and I would have, I think, except that my college, Haverford College, had only three biology professors and all of them were cellular molecular biologists and no-one was, you know, anything like a herpetologist so actually, professionally I abandoned my herpetology and I became a molecular biologist.

How did your family influence your decision in science?

George P. Smith: Oh, my parents are relevant in many ways. Scientifically I would say my father was very influential because he was an army officer. He was in the branch we call ordnance which is like supplies. It’s kind of like the business part of the army, but he was curious about everything. For example when we lived in Japan, every weekend he would be taking us on an adventure in the neighbourhood out off the army base where we lived and using sign language and expressions and so on to converse with a farmer like a peanut farmer or something like that. We’d so many times be invited for tea inside someone’s house. He was just extremely outgoing and curious about everything and especially about …

He went to West Point which is our military academy and that’s kind of like a technical education, it’s like an engineering education. And he was particularly interested in science engineering, things like that. I think that that was very influential in my upbringing as far as my science upbringing and being something that really encouraged that kind of curiosity and interest in how the world works, like how things work. That was one of his big things he would understand how, you know, gadgets worked and I think I inherited, or not genetically, but I was encouraged to have that kind of habit of mine from my father. So that was certainly a big part. Also my father was in the army. As I became politically active or politically aware in the 1960s, the war in Vietnam was a big part and my parents, despite the fact that they were an army family, turned against the war in Vietnam and this is a very, I think, perhaps unusual upbringing and in the army so that had quite a bit of influence on me.

What do you enjoy most about being a scientist?

George P. Smith: You know, if I had to say the thing that has given me most pleasure over the years, is kind of like workmanship in the laboratory, like gel electrophoresis. Actually my postdoctoral advisor who was also a Nobel laureate, Oliver Smithies, invented gel electrophoresis as well. Any molecular biologist uses it all the time so, but to me designing exactly how you would load the samples, in what order, trying to design it so that the results would be really striking, that was really important to me. I took such great pleasure in the little tiny triumphs of two hours of work. I would say that was really important to me. Of course it was very exciting when sometimes I might have some insight that I thought was a breakthrough or thought it was an ‘aha moment’, those were very exciting too. Those were rare and the delight in workmanship in the laboratory was a constant pleasure to me, a constant scientific pleasure to me.

Is it important for scientists to have mentors?

George P. Smith: I think it’s very important in many ways. For one thing mentors help students, and early career scientists make their thoughts sharper, more concrete. They can also be a force of conservatism about their science so they also have to learn from their mentors, not to worship their mentors and not to pay attention, you know, not to think that their mentors’ word is gospel because sometimes the mentors are going to give them advice that’d be probably in the long run better to ignore. I think that’s something that, it’s very important for a mentor to get across to an early career scientist, a student, a postdoc etc. that you know you should … A scientist needs to be skeptical about everything. That I think is a very important lesson for scientists to learn. They have to be skeptical about everything, not to the point that it immobilizes them, but to a point where everything has to be looked on as provisional. Everything in sciences has to be looked on as provisional. I think this is a habit of thought that is really important in science.

A mentor also of course serves as a role model. It would be good to be a mentor that upholds standards of decent behaviour and morality and the conduct of science. I mean that for example … Don’t be a role model that’s like a cut-throat that cuts down in competitors /—/ looks on science as fundamentally a competitive enterprise because I don’t think it is. I mean science flourishes by a community of scientists, communicating their ideas with each other. Fundamentally, that’s the nourishment of science and I think that mentors owe it to their protégés to value this above all else in science. So how about me, am I a good role model? Well, you know I’d said that I think that a scientist need to foster the attitude of being skeptical about everything, so I think everyone should be skeptical about his or her own behaviour. So I think that maybe I’m a harsh critic of myself and I don’t value … valorise my own behaviour as a role model. I aspire to be a good role model but no one really reaches his or her aspirations.

How did you discover you were awarded the Nobel Prize?

George P. Smith: I heard the news about the prize, well, it came at 4:30 in the morning in Columbia Missouri where we live and actually I have sort of a difficulty sleeping through the night that many old people do have and so I actually had come downstairs around ten after four to start the coffee for the morning and the phone rang and my wife answered it upstairs in the bedroom and apparently the call was, well, stand by for a very important call from Stockholm at which point the line went dead and then the call came through again. She answered it again and the same message and she called downstairs: “This is a call from Stockholm, I think you’d better get it!” So I did, that’s how I learned about it.

When I get this call I was very surprised. I do want to say that I knew that I was one of the hundreds of people that was on the radar of the Chemistry Committee and that’s because I was invited to a conference in the hundredth year anniversary of the Chemistry Prize in 2001, to a conference in honor of that anniversary. There were very few participants in the conference, maybe 20 or 30 or something like that, and all of us were invited to the ceremony and to the banquet afterwards. I kind of know what the ceremony is going to be like, although not from the point of view of an actual laureate. But that also alerted me that it was pretty likely that I was on the radar of the Chemistry Committee. It did come as a surprise 17 years later because I thought the time had long since passed. It wasn’t an, you know, a bolt out of the blue but is was a big surprise because I had long since thought that the time had passed.

 

What does it mean to receive a Nobel Prize?

George P. Smith: To be a prize winner when you’re retired, because I retired from my university three years ago and I’m not doing much science anymore, so it is something to look back with, with pleasure and pride that this award has come. I’m going say in my lecture that I feel that I’m taking it, I’m accepting the prize as a representative of the science community that I belong to because many people in this community could equally get this prize but it certainly is an honour that I look upon with pleasure. Also, I think that my family looks on it with even more pleasure than I do and I should add that this is the first Nobel Prize for my university, a public university, the University of Missouri, and it is a great honour to my university. I think that all three of those are things that give me pleasure, my own pleasure, and the vicarious pleasure on the part of my family and my university and my science community.

 

What is needed to create a supportive environment for research?

George P. Smith: In countless ways the science community is nurtured … it depends for its support on the wider community of society as a whole. It depends crucially of course on the schools that educate our children, some of whom will eventually end up in as part of the professional scientific community, their teachers. It depends crucially on our colleges and universities, especially the public colleges and universities including my own university, the University of Missouri, where children get their further education and that support the local science communities of which I was a member at the University of Missouri for 40 years. These are very important and also science, the well-being of science, depends critically on institution, public institutions, like in the United States, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health which supported my research and similar institutions in other countries, for example the Medical Research Council in the UK. Our science communities depend on public institutions supported by the people as a whole for critical financial support and for being … If we’re persuading people as a whole, that this is really an important part of our culture and the economy. That’s what we absolutely depend on, that kind of broad society support and university support is part of that.

What skills do young scientists need?

George P. Smith: It’s a perpetual problem in science education, really in education in general, but specifically in science education is: What do we teach our young people to try to ensure as well as we can, that they could be successful in science afterwards? Do we teach them the specific technical skills that we ourselves depended on? That’s a question that teachers often have to grapple with and there are two sides of that, one thing is, I think, that students really need to understand specifically and concretely: What physical things support our theories about nature? What results? What concrete results are behind what we think of as our knowledge about nature so … The students really should learn about some of the nitty-gritty of experimental science, how we carry out experiments and how we look at the data and how we deal with the fact that inevitably data are messy and it’s not so clear-cut as if it were in a textbook. We have to, I think, educate students to be sophisticated about the relationship between physical findings and the interpretations that we give about those physical findings. I think that’s really critical.

I think also that students should learn about the fundamental ideas, the fundamental theories, theoretical understanding that underlies the science that they’re learning. They need to be educated in the science culture in which they are, in which they are learning and as I’ve tried to say before, also they need to learn to be skeptical about that culture, that it is not the last word and nothing in science is the last word about anything. They need to be skeptical about that culture as well. These are all things that I think a teacher has a sacred duty to pass on, to help to pass on to students as well as he or she can do it.

What are your favourite applications of your research?

George P. Smith: I’m often asked about the applications of my work and what their meaning is and my co-winner Greg Winter went on to use the phage display idea in very imaginative ways, not just him but of course his whole group and other groups that are similar groups carrying out similar research, use this in very imaginative ways that have turned out to be important for developing new medicines. A good example and a commonly cited example in the context of this prize is the Humira, which is a medicine developed partly using phage display technology, not buy me, but … that’s an example of something that has come from this.

I’m not sure, that I would say, that I myself, am most proud of that. To me a phage display, the technology that I developed, I saw that my vision at the time, as it matured over a few years, was that it would make a technologically very productive technology available broadly and cheaply and without a very strong technical background required, without the high demands, technological demands, available widely to researchers all over the world. I think that it is an aspiration that has been partly met because certainly many people have used phage display in ordinary laboratories, not in heavily funded industry laboratories or academic laboratories but in very ordinary laboratories as my laboratory was itself. It didn’t have a lot of money to spare but this was a technology that could be carried out by such a laboratory. That was a big aspiration of mine. I think it is one that has been partly fulfilled.

What do you do in your free time?

George P. Smith: I mentioned before that I’ve been retired for three years and I haven’t abandoned science altogether, I still go to lab meetings for a couple of collaborators at the University every week or most weeks. And I go to many of the seminars in my former department which wasn’t chemistry by the way. It was biology, I’m a biologist. It’s not that I’ve abandoned science altogether, but I also have continued a long-standing interest in my life, in I would say social justice and human rights. I would say that it started in the 1960s when I was a war resister during the Vietnam War and has continued on and off since then, so that’s become a very important part of my life, human rights and social justice in the United States for example. A major effort that my wife Margie Sable and I are involved in is the fight for a just health care system in our country, one that is universally available to all citizens and that does not bankrupt people that happen to get sick. So that would be an iconic social justice issue and that kind of issue is what engages me more now in my retirement life.

How does it feel to be a biologist who has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry?

George P. Smith: It would be funny to me, except that I’ve known many Nobel Laureates and I know about many of the prizes. I told you that I was at the ceremony in 2001. There was no Nobel Prize in biology, yet clearly biology is an iconic scientific enterprise and especially ever since Darwin really, it is a landmark scientific enterprise in the 20th century right from the beginning of the 20th century when Darwin was fully accepted by the biological community. And since chemistry is deeply involved in biology, it is pretty natural that many of the … that the prizes in chemistry that involved biological subjects are awarded to people who would identify themselves as biologists and also that really applies to physics as well because several of the physics prizes, I think, owe their salience to the fact they have led to applications in biological sciences. So yes, I think that it’s pretty natural that prizes go to biologists from both chemistry, especially chemistry, but also physics, not just to make up, but to the fact that there’s no biology prize and also Barbara McClintock who was a maize geneticist got the prize in physiology and medicine and who could be more of a biologist than Barbara McClintock? So the prize don’t fall into the neat categories that Nobel envisioned in his will and I would imagine that Alfred Nobel would be very pleased that that’s the case.

Can you summarise your Nobel Prize awarded discovery in 30 seconds?

George P. Smith: A phage is a virus that infects bacteria and grows to huge numbers and can be grown to huge numbers very cheaply, so it is a very convenient laboratory organism for experimenters to work with. Phage display tries to harness this natural device for searching through huge libraries of structures, tens of billions of structures, for structures that have a particular activity that the experimenter wants for some experimental end. As for example something that would … some structure that would bind to a receptor involved in cancer or autoimmune disease or something like that and might be used as an intervention for that disease. So it’s a technologically pretty simple and yet powerful way of searching through enormous collections of structures, for very rare structures, that have a desired activity.

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