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Personnel File - June 2008: Research

Oliver Smithies, Nobel Laureate
Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine,
UNC Chapel Hill

The call came early in the morning — 4:45, to be exact — but for Oliver Smithies, it wasn’t a minute too soon. For years, colleagues had told the UNC professor he was up for the Nobel Prize in medicine for his ground-breaking research in genetics, but as the years went by with no word from Sweden, he learned to ignore the rumors. When the call finally came last October, it was “a feeling of relief as much as anything else. A feeling of, well, that’s good. That’s finished.”

Smithies, 83, shared the prize with two other scientists, Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah and Sir Martin Evans of Cardiff University in Wales. The trio won for their work on gene targeting, a research technique developed in the ’80s in which specific genes in mice can be altered or deleted, allowing scientists to replicate human diseases and study their development and the effects of treatments. So far, it has been used in research on cystic fibrosis, diabetes and cancer. In the words of the Nobel committee, “Its impact on the understanding of gene function and its benefits to mankind will continue to increase over many years to come.”

Although immensely successful in his chosen field of biochemistry, it was in physics that Smithies originally excelled. Growing up in the small town of Halifax, England, he was fascinated by old radios and telescopes and at 18 won a scholarship to study science at the University of Oxford. During the course of his studies, he decided to go into medicine but found himself more interested in re-search than the clinical aspect. Smithies earned bachelor’s degrees in physiology and in chemistry, as well as a master’s and in 1951 the British equivalent of a Ph.D., both in biochemistry. He continued his research at the University of Toronto before becoming a professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin, where he stayed 28 years. In 1988, he followed his wife, Nobuyo Maeda, to North Carolina, where they took jobs at Chapel Hill.

Despite being well past retirement age, Smithies, who became a U.S. citizen in the ’60s, can be found in the lab seven days a week — 10 hours on weekdays, maybe four or five on weekends. He’s now researching how different substances affect kidney function and doesn’t plan to stop working. “Painters go on painting until they’re 90. And musicians go on playing their cello or piano or singing. … You go on as long as you can. We’re not that different — artists, musicians, composers, scientists. We’re all working on a dream.”