Not very many scientists who have won the Nobel Prize go to work every day, sit down at a laboratory bench and put their hands on actual equipment. That's especially true in biology, a field that involves a lot of grunt work. The big guys win the grants, tell their lab people what to do, and get the credit.
Hamilton Smith doesn't fit this mold. His 37-year career spans the era of "recombinant DNA," the body of scientific techniques that allows scientists to slice and dice the genetic material that regulates all life. Smith is one of the acknowledged masters of the field. That was made clear to the world at large in 1978, when he and two colleagues won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery of a type of enzyme that can make precise cuts in DNA.
Despite his eminence, Smith has remained a working bench scientist his whole career. "I . . . continue to get a kick out of hands-on lab work," he writes in an e-mail. "After 37 years at the bench, I am pretty good at it."
Last year he did make a big career move, leaving Johns Hopkins University, his professional home of many years, to join a start-up called Celera Genomics Corp. That company has taken on the audacious project of mapping the entire human genetic code as a commercial venture.
Name: Hamilton Othanel Smith
Title: Director of DNA resources, Celera Genomics Corp., Rockville
Nature of his work: With a single assistant and a panoply of delicate techniques, Smith extracts genetic material from cells and slices it into precisely sized pieces, creating DNA "libraries" for further analysis.
How long at job: 15 months
Education: Bachelor's degree in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley, medical degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Experience most useful for current work: Math background helps him understand the statistics involved in modern gene research, while "intimate knowledge" of gene-splicing techniques helps him create DNA libraries.
When vested in stock options: July 1, 1999.
Car driven: A 1993 Buick Roadmaster with 119,000 miles on it. He's gradually retiring his 1983 Mercury Grand Marquis with 253,000 miles.
Length of commute to work: About 45 miles, from a 134-acre farm near Reisterstown to the Celera lab in Rockville.
Last vacation: Visiting friends in Switzerland.
Fantasy lunch partner: "Bill Clinton. I am one of his greatest admirers."
Computer and Internet provider at home: A Pentium II machine with two 400-megahertz processors, two fast nine-gigabyte hard drives, 512 megabytes of working memory and a super-fast Internet connection over cable.
Quote: "I really feel like we're doing the greatest thing in the world right now, to produce the operating system for man himself. What could be grander?"
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