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10 Questions for a Biophysicist: Jeremy Smith

May 5, 2011 - 3:51pm

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Dr Jeremy Smith | Photo Courtesy of ORNL

Dr Jeremy Smith | Photo Courtesy of ORNL

In 2006, Dr. Smith came to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Since then, he has led a wide-ranging spectrum of projects focusing on everything from biofuels to drug discovery. He recently gave us the download on his many projects, how neutron scattering advances his work and why this clip has special meaning.

Question: What sparked your interest to pursue a career in science?

Jeremy Smith: In England in the 1970s one had to specialize early, very early -- at 16. For me it could have gone either way, arts or sciences. To be honest I wasn’t very interested in science at that time. I was never a geeky, gadget-type kid, although scientific concepts did interest me. My high school teachers advised science as having safer career prospects than arts subjects, so from 17 on that’s all I did. Later in high school I became interested in protein structures and how atoms interact. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d chosen the other way at 16…

Q: As the Director of the Center for Molecular Biophysics, your work spans across a multitude of fields. Can you tell us a little about your research background -- what led you to this unique position?

JS: My first degree was in biophysics at Leeds, England. After that, I did a Ph.D. in neutron scattering in France, a post doc in chemistry at Harvard, and then ran my first group at the French National Lab in Saclay. Before coming to Tennessee I held the Chair of Computational Molecular Biophysics at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Yes, our work involves theoretical physics, quantum chemistry, statistical mechanics, computer science, supercomputing, catalytic chemistry, polymer science, biochemistry, molecular biology -- you name it!

I find it difficult to not get enthusiastic about a crisp new idea in molecular science and how we might help develop it.

Q: What projects are you working on right now? What do you hope they will lead to?

JS: We’re working on many different projects. Some of these include: cellulosic biofuels, which we hope will lead to cheap alternative energy, drug discovery towards curing prostate cancer and mercury biogeochemistry to understand the fate of mercury in the environment. We’re also working on describing the structure and dynamics of biological materials through neutron scattering. With regards to supercomputing, those cheeky hardware guys keep building more and more powerful machines and challenging us to perform cutting-edge simulations that efficiently use their full capability.

Q: You are also a professor at University of Tennessee -- do you have any advice for students interested in science?

JS: Yes. Learn to write well -- too many youngsters can do science but not precisely express their thoughts and findings. Furthermore, don’t forget to lead a balanced, active, fun life -- it will help the scientific part.

Q: What classes do you teach? What have your students taught you?

JS: I teach an introduction to molecular biophysics, a journal club and our group meetings. My co-workers and students come up with all the crazy ideas and then do all the work -- they’re sickeningly bright and inexhaustibly hard-working.

Q: What can you never start a day at the lab without?

JS: I like to start the day finding a new research manuscript on my desk that a co-worker has left for me, preferably with a cookie on top.

Q: Do you have a favorite fictional scientist?

JS: Yes, Gromit. He remembered to take the handbrake off his rocket.

Q: We heard that you are an avid soccer fan and player -- having lived in England, France, Germany and now the United States, do you have a favorite for the next World Cup?

JS: Concerning playing soccer -- my 79-year-old father still plays ninety minute games so I can’t possibly give up playing until he does, can I?

I’m the equivalent of a Cubs fan. I support Norwich City, a team in England apparently consigned to perennial failure, except of course, maybe, this year (hope springs eternal)! As for the World Cup, supporting England is too painful so I’ll just say anyone but Germany, please.

Q: What is it like to work in ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) facility?

JS: Well, the SNS brings together scientists from many different fields. It’s sometimes difficult for me to understand what someone from, for example, magnetism is working on but the diversity of backgrounds leads to fertile discussion. It will take a while before SNS achieves full science productivity and then a couple more years until the results obtained have their full effects on the scientific community but we’re getting there.

Q: Last question -- why is neutron scattering research important?

JS: Neutrons give direct, simultaneous information on molecular structure and dynamics and no other probe of matter does this. This should help us design new materials in the energy sciences, and understand important topics in bioenergy and biology. For example, we recently demonstrated with neutrons how a cancer drug, methotrexate, softens the target it binds to -- that’s fundamental understanding of how drugs work.

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