The legacy lives on: Dr. Michael Smith, BC’s first Nobel Laureate

24 September 2018

In research you really have to love and be committed to your work because things have more of a chance of going wrong than right. But when things go right, there is nothing more exciting.

Those are the words of Dr. Michael Smith, BC’s first Nobel Laureate and MSFHR’s namesake. This October, 25 years after Smith won the Nobel Prize, MSFHR and organizations from across BC’s scientific research community are celebrating his powerful legacy. Smith’s impact and foundational work in genomics inspired many and helped propel BC to international prominence as a world leader in life sciences research.

Smith’s Nobel Prize was awarded for his work on site-directed mutagenesis, a revolutionary technique that allows scientists to make a genetic mutation precisely at any spot in a DNA molecule, helping us understand more about how genes work, and what happens when they go wrong.

This technique has led to new tests and treatments for diseases such as cancer, with made-in-BC treatments and practices putting the province near the top of world rankings for cancer outcomes. It has also contributed to better understanding of conditions such as Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis and HIV/AIDS.

A man of humble origins, Smith donated his entire Nobel Prize award. Half of the $500,000 prize went to researchers working in schizophrenia research, at the time a notoriously under-funded area. The other half he split between Science World British Columbia and the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology, enabling the group to continue supporting and promoting women in their education and career choices.

The Nobel Prize, and Smith’s dedication to using his position to advance BC research as a whole, was a game changer for the province, vaulting the expertise of local scientists onto the world stage and putting BC on the map as a place for world-class research.

“Having a local researcher win the Nobel Prize had a dramatic impact on the BC research community, especially one who was so dedicated to using his position to benefit BC research as a whole,” explains Dr. Bev Holmes, MSFHR president & CEO. “By using his influence to advance research in the province, support women in research and engage the public in science, he laid the groundwork for a thriving research ecosystem in BC – something we are proud to continue.”

Among the organizations Smith created and inspired are Genome British Columbia, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, and the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at BC Cancer.

Twenty five years after the Nobel Prize, these organizations are carrying on Smith’s legacy of research excellence and interdisciplinary work so that BC remains an international leader in life sciences research, making significant discoveries and bringing the benefits to British Columbians.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary, the Michael Smith Laboratories at UBC are hosting a scientific symposium on October 1, 2018, focusing on future trends in biotechnology research and education. Follow along on Twitter using #MSmith25.

The full media pack is available here.