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What Is It Like To Win The Nobel Prize? A Public Radio Reporter From Missouri Asks His Dad

Bram Sable-Smith
Nobel Prize winner George P. Smith (right) with his sons Bram Sable-Smith (left) and Alex Sable-Smith (center), circa 1992-93.

Editor's note: Until recently, Bram Sable-Smith was a health reporter at KCUR's sister station KBIA in Columbia, Missouri. His father, George P. Smith, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developing a laboratory technique known as phage display, in which a virus that infects bacteria can be used to evolve new proteins.

Bram spoke with his father for KCUR.

Sable-Smith: When did it sink in that you had won the Nobel Prize?

Smith: I think I knew it before I picked up the phone because Mom said it was a call from Stockholm. I wasn’t asleep. I was already downstairs getting ready to make coffee. I wasn’t groggy.

Sable-Smith: I heard a different story from Mom. She says when you went to the store that night you got the wrong kind of yogurt, and that’s how she knew it’d sunk in with you.

Smith: (Laughs) I think that’s more showing the degradation of the brain when you are kind of overloaded. But yes, I’m always criticizing Mom for getting vanilla yogurt instead of plain yogurt, and of course that’s exactly what I did.

Credit University of Missouri
George P. Smith, the MU Curators Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences, shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday.

Sable-Smith: Everyone is calling you humble. What do you think about that?

Smith: This humility rap I’m getting would come as a surprise to many people who work with me. I think sometimes I can veer into arrogance. But that doesn’t take the form of the pride of wearing a jacket to a press conference, or refusing to talk to students, or it doesn’t take the form of bragging, which I think is vulgar.

But as you know, I have great pride in myself. I think my arrogance would be sometimes overriding other people's arguments and not listening to them. You kids criticize me about that.

Sable-Smith: What would life be like if you didn’t win the Nobel Prize?

Smith: My life would be very similar except this coming year, when I’ll have many requests to give talks. As you know, I’m not well adapted to travel. But I think my life will be similar. My goals, my political activity, will be very similar.

Sable-Smith: I want to ask about patents. You said you think part of the success of phage display was your unsuccessful attempt to patent it.

Smith: Well, I think that’s right. It was a stupid patent application to begin with, because I was way undereducated. I had no clue what the potential applications were. I got educated soon after by many other people, and my vision of what phage display was was greatly expanded.

Nonetheless, if you spend so much of your substance trying to perfect the patent, then you don’t pay attention to your science. But more importantly, if you think of your work as intellectual property that has to be protected, you have to be secretive about what you do.

I don’t think I would have gotten the prize for this thing if I had patented it. Instead I would have been undeservedly the “hub” of phage display — undeservedly because other people had done it and there were other labs that were doing the key things at the same time, and I wouldn’t have been singled out.

(Without a patent) I felt free to talk liberally about anything. And I believe my career depended on that freedom and the liberation that not having to worry about patents gave me.

Sable-Smith: Why aren’t you championing yourself more?

Credit Bram Sable-Smith
Bram Sable-Smith

Smith: In a broader sense I think I am championing myself because I would like to live in a society where people like me who are intellectually engaged — like most people I would like to live in an environment where that activity is valued. Where the society as a whole values that.

And I do think that if you try to grab credit for things that you know arise naturally from the people who came before you — and where your reputation is dependent on people who have explored and expanded the things that you’ve done — if you try to grab credit for that, then it’s degrading to society.

I want to live in a society that gives credit for the stuff that has been crucial in one’s scientific thinking, and gives credit to people who had much more vision than she or he had and carried on the work that wasn’t at all envisioned to begin with. I do think it is in my self-interest, as I see it, to foster and try to exemplify that attitude in scientific society and society in general.

Sable-Smith: Anything else?

Smith: How about my two sons who are so successful?

Sable-Smith: Proud of that?

Smith: I just think you guys turned out well. I can’t imagine it was due to really careful upbringing on our part, or my part.

I taught them the essence of science and now I have two children who know the difference between right-handed and left-handed DNA.

Bram Sable-Smith is an independent journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin. Follow him on Twitter, @besables.

A curious Columbia, Mo. native, Bram Sable-Smith is a reporter for Kaiser Health News. He has documented mbira musicians in Zimbabwe, mining protests in Chile, and the St. Louis airport's tumultuous relationship with the Chinese cargo business. His reporting from Ferguson, Mo. was part of a KBIA documentary honored by the Missouri Broadcasters Association and winner of a national Edward R. Murrow Award. He comes to KBIA most recently from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.
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