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Inside View: A Kind Gentleman and Nobel Laureate

It was a gray afternoon in March, 2008 at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. A kindly looking gentleman stood in our Congressional Room, surrounded by a group of North Carolina’s brightest young scientists, winners of various science competitions across the state that year.

The kind gentleman, the guest of honor, had won the mother (or maybe the father) of all science competitions – the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. And despite the recognition for a discovery that had changed the face of medicine, the gentleman stood among the rising stars and asked them a simple question.

“Have you done any science today?”

Somewhat embarrassed, the teenagers mostly shook their heads no.

Oliver Smithies looked around the circle. "I have," he said, and opened his notebook to show them.

He spoke with the group for another half hour, telling them stories about his most successful experiments, and the value of the ones that failed. He gave them some wisdom about what was important in life – to find your love (a much more sincere word than passion) and to make time for it every day.

We had to break up the conversation to begin our main event - a ceremony to honor this Nobel Prize winner, one of our first faculty recruits. And believe me when I tell you that Oliver Smithies was no different speaking to a room full of bigwigs than he was speaking to those teenagers. And people listened to his words more closely because of that authenticity.

We do so many events at the Biotech Center, but something about this one has always stuck with me. I was sad when I heard that he had died on Tuesday. I felt a deep admiration for this man. And I know everyone who had the good fortune to meet him shares this recognition of loss.

The memory was strong Thursday afternoon when I happened to catch the show The State of Things on WUNC radio. I heard Kathleen Caron talk about Oliver Smithies, the man who had given her a postdoc position in his lab, on her way to becoming chair of the cell biology and physiology department at UNC.

She described her mentor, a man of three passions: his wife, his airplane and his science. And he was known to be in the lab seven days a week, always doing an experiment. Something else she said stuck with me. (Starts at 4:25 in the audio.)

Dr. Smithies believed that science should be accessible. That a scientist’s job is not only to make the discoveries, but to talk about them in a way that everyone could understand, and could appreciate the science.

We need more Dr. Smithies in the world today. Thank you, sir, for what you gave us. And may we honor your legacy by bringing more understanding of science into the world.

Godspeed.

If you have a memory of Oliver Smithies you'd be willing to share, please email it to elizabeth_edwards@ncbiotech.org.

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