Leadership, research lift Smith into AAAS

Dec 13th, 2012 | By | Category: 2012, Dec. 13, Issue, Research

L. Dennis Smith’s contributions to the AAAS are in is research in developmental biology and in leadership and advocacy on education. Smith, president emeritus of the University of Nebraska and emeritus professor in the School of Biological Sciences, took an unusual path to a career as a scientist.

An aspiring jazz musician, he was a music major his first three years at Indiana University until his adviser counseled him about the difficulty of making a living as a performer, and recommended the less risky course of becoming a music teacher.

He accepted the first part of the advice and reluctantly gave up the trumpet as a vocation. But while he expresses the highest respect for music teachers — they had been a big help to him, after all — he said he decided he needed a bigger challenge and took the plunge into science.

“I took nothing but biology my senior year so I could get my required 30 hours, including a couple of advanced courses,” he recalled. “One of them, which was a lab course for graduate students — I had to get permission to get in — but that’s when I fell in love with with. It clicked the second semester of my senior year.”

Smith earned his doctorate in experimental embryology at Indiana and, after serving in various positions at Wood Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and as a staff scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, he became head of Purdue University’s Department of Biological Sciences. It was at Purdue where he said he did his most significant scientific work.

“Some of the research we did early on laid the foundation for a Nobel Prize in 2003,” he said. “We were talking about how oocytes (egg cells) are induced to complete meiosis (cell division) and reach the point where they can be fertilized, and we discovered a factor inside the oocyte which activated this cell division. I’m quite pleased with it. It was excellent research.”

In addition to scientific research, the AAAS fellowship also recognized Smith for his work in science education and in defense of academic freedom during his 1994-2004 term as NU president. In 2002, the organization gave him its Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for his handling of a 1999 controversy over University of Nebraska Medical Center use of brain cells of fetal tissues for research conducted on neurodegenerative diseases.

“It’s a very nice award, but it sort of feels like after the fact,” he said of the fellowship. “I’ve been retired for several years and haven’t been in a laboratory since 1995. But I’m very pleased. It’s a nice honor.”

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