August 9, 2002

Young researcher receives Presidential Early Career award at White House ceremony

Featured Image

Dr. Jeffrey R. Smith

Young researcher receives Presidential Early Career award at White House ceremony

When Dr. Jeffrey R. Smith was a senior in high school, he traveled to Washington, D.C. as one of 40 finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. This summer, the scientific promise recognized years ago fulfilled, he was back in the nation’s capital to receive a 2001 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Smith, assistant professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology, received the award in a White House ceremony that included remarks from President George W. Bush. “The President’s speech was definitely the highlight of the award events,” Smith said, adding with awe that his front row seat was only feet away from President Bush.

And as if being honored by the President weren’t enough for one week, Smith and his wife Michelle Southard-Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine and Cell & Developmental Biology, welcomed daughter Caroline into the world just five days after they attended the White House festivities. “It’s a wonder they let us on the plane,” Smith said.

The Presidential Award – established by former President Bill Clinton in 1996 – is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to scientists and engineers early in their independent research careers. Eight federal departments and agencies which fund scientific and engineering research nominate investigators for the award from among their research grant recipients who are considered most meritorious and who have no more than five years of independent research experience. Smith, who was nominated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, was one of 60 investigators to receive the Presidential Award this year.

“This award is a statement of our confidence, the nation’s confidence, and the tremendous good that can come when the American government supports the genius of the American people,” President Bush said in his remarks to the honorees. “Most Americans may not understand all you do and all the details of your work. But we understand your promise and your commitment and your dedication. And we’re grateful for it.”

Smith received the Presidential Award in recognition of his research related to the molecular genetics of prostate cancer.

Smith began his search for prostate cancer genes under the Clinical Investigator Track of the American Board of Internal Medicine, a specialized residency in which he completed two years of clinical residency at the University of Michigan and two years of research at the National Human Genome Research Institute. It was there that he and Dr. Francis S. Collins initiated a project to find genes that predispose for prostate cancer. At the time, the evidence that such genes existed had been suggested by several epidemiology studies, Smith said.

After working with Applied Biosystems to adapt its automated DNA sequencers for genotyping, Smith developed a high-throughput genotyping facility at the NHGRI. He and his colleagues successfully identified regions of chromosomes 1 and X that predispose patients to hereditary prostate cancer.

Since joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 1999, Smith has set up a high-throughput genomics laboratory that is pursuing cancer-causing genes in patients cared for at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. A significant aspect of the work involves developing the technology (software and hardware tools) to collect and analyze the volumes of data required in the genetic mapping of complex diseases like cancer.

In collaboration with Dr. Wei Zheng, professor of Medicine, Smith is hunting for genes that predispose patients to breast cancer. And instead of looking for genes only in DNA from families that have strong inherited patterns of cancer, Smith and others are turning to larger numbers of unrelated patients and studying ancestral pieces of DNA.

“We’re viewing the patients as members of a really ancient 100,000-year-old family – which is in fact the case,” Smith said. “We hope that, rather than identifying genes that cause cancer in rare families, we will find cancer genes that have great relevance to the population of patients we see in the hospital.”