George Smith woke to a phone call Oct. 3 telling him he had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. That kickstarted non-stop planning for the Dec. 10 ceremony in Stockholm, as well as a whirlwind of public appearances. He and his wife, Marjorie Sable, rode in a convertible in the MU Homecoming parade, the university dedicated a bike rack spot to the avid cyclist, and KBIA put his portrait on a coffee mug as a fundraising giveaway. Vox chatted with Smith and Sable to find out more about the university’s first Nobel Laureate.
What has life been like since you learned you won?
Smith: We have spent the days since then very, very focused getting ready for this. I have to prepare the lectures. The Nobel lecture itself is kind of a big deal, but it’s only 25 minutes long. For a professor to keep something down to 25 minutes? Margie can attest to the fact that that’s been a big struggle.
How do you explain your bacteriophage display technology research to non-scientists?
Smith: That’s been a major thing, to explain in terms I hope that people can understand without having detailed backgrounds in scientific knowledge. It is a pretty simple outcome of basic biology ideas. That’s part of the reason for the prize — is that the technology uses very simple 1950s technology to accomplish things that could not have been conceived of in 1950, before the era of understanding the structured DNA and how DNA specifies proteins.
Editor's Note: Still confused? Basically, bacteriophage display technology helps identify unknown genes for particular proteins and has been used to develop disease treatments. Nobel co-winner Gregory Winter of the University of Cambridge applied Smith’s research to antibody therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Nobel winners donate a research artifact to the Nobel Museum. What did you donate?
Smith: I gave a little tiny test tube that contains about half a milliliter of solution with the first phage display.*
You also helped found Columbia Chorale. How did that start?
Smith: Three of us (including Christy Leonard and Gary Cox) got together and decided on it in 1978 and then recruited three more singers, so we were the beginning chorale. But in those days we didn’t have a name; we just got together in people’s living rooms and sang madrigals. We have practice every Monday night, and then we have about five concerts, but four of them are really formal concerts where we prepare a fairly large set of music and sing it.
And you're involved in local politics?
Smith: Marge and I both planned to be very active in this last election. That was interrupted (by the Nobel activities). We’ve been distressed, certainly I’ve been distressed, at the turn that our state politics has taken, so that’s been part of the reason that we’ve become active.
What do you two like to do together?
Smith: What we do is we sit at opposite ends of the living room, each of us with our computers.
Sable: We’ve gone on The Boone Dawdle for True/False for a few years. We used to ride our bikes together, and still do once in a while. We are in a dinner group. We travel some.
What do you have planned after the Nobel festivities wrap up?
Sable: We will go to Copenhagen for two days to explore that city and be anonymous. We also hope to visit our sons, Alex in Palo Alto (California) and Bram and wife, Emma Brown, in Madison, Wisconsin. We cancelled a trip to Palo Alto after the prize was announced because of all the hoopla here and the preparations for the trip to Stockholm. George is looking forward to starting up rehearsals again for the Columbia Chorale on Jan. 7. Their next concert will be a performance of "Carmina Burana" on April 5 and 6 at the Missouri Theatre.
* UPDATE: This story has been updated since it first was published. Smith decided to donate a different artifact to the Nobel Museum.