Todd Strother still remembers that cold Friday morning in March of 1997 when he first ventured across the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus to meet Lloyd Smith. While he had arranged to meet with a bevy of professors that day, Strother, now an applications scientist at Thermo Fisher Scientific, says he had his eye on Smith's lab from the start. But somehow there was a mix-up with the appointment time, and the young graduate student ended up waiting around for nearly an hour. "It turns out he was hosting Dr. David Schwartz that particular day and had to rush him off to the airport," says Strother. "So, only having just met Lloyd, I tagged along for the ride, and my initial interview with him was essentially on the way back from the airport."
It is that same absence of teacher-student formality that serves as the core of Lloyd Smith's mentoring approach. He isn't interested in holding his students' hands throughout their graduate experience. Instead, he is looking for independent minds and a give-and-take dynamic. "There's quite a bit of mentoring that one does with students, but I don't want to tell people what to do, so I can be an uncomfortable boss for those who want guidance," says Smith, a chemistry professor. "I'm basically looking for a pure relationship with all the scientists I work with — graduate students or postdocs — and the quicker my students can get to where they're peers and we're just talking together about what would be interesting and what might work, the happier I am."
Strother says that the PI's greatest influence on him can best be summed up with the Smith mantra: "Let the science guide you." Whether it's for a research grant or dealing with industry, Strother says he still follows the advice to this day. "This is sound advice, because it removes the hype, misdirection, and politics that sometimes get in the way of reality."
A bit about Lloyd
After nearly 26 years in science, Smith can lay claim to 22 issued US patents and roughly 190 scientific papers; he's also founded three biotech companies. But he's probably best known for publishing the first proof of principle of fluorescence-based automated sequencing back in 1986, an accomplishment that can be traced to his time as a young postdoc. He had landed a fellowship position in Lee Hood's Caltech lab, where he was quickly put to work on a DNA sequencing project.
"That was a good way for a novice like myself to learn molecular biology," Smith says, "so I did that, and found myself sequencing DNA, which was very laborious and boring and I wasn't even that good at it." When the opportunity arose to try to automate sequencing, he volunteered to step in.
Many late-night conversations with colleagues later, he began to envision a fluorescence-based sequencing approach. In order to execute his concept, he used his knowledge of chemistry, developed four primers, got the sequencing actions to work, and built a laser-based fluorescence instrument. He published his findings in 1986 and, within a year, secured his first academic appointment at UW-Madison as an assistant professor in the chemistry department.
Sink or swim
As for choosing students, Smith says that more than a sky-high IQ, he looks for people with an intrinsic love of science. "It's great to see someone with real genuine enthusiasm, a lot of energy, and positivity, because those traits are actually more important than just being very smart" he says. "I've had several students who were book smart but not good at research, and some who are the opposite. It's like two different skill sets."
This love of science and the joy of exploration that comes with it is something Smith's former students remember most about the man. "Lloyd was always encouraging you to approach problems that other people wouldn't because they think it's impossible," says Mike Fitzgerald, an associate professor of biochemistry at Duke University Medical Center. "He does that in his own work and it's one thing I took away from his lab."
Fitzgerald fondly remembers his former advisor's sink-or-float environment. "Having that hands-off kind of attitude gets students more invested in their project, because either they invest in their project or nobody does," Fitzgerald says. "He gives the feeling that we're thinking about this together and if we fail, then we'll just think of new ideas."
While there have been many to pass through the ranks of Smith's lab, here's a sampling of the roughly 30 PhDs he has graduated since 1987:
William Travis Berggren
Started out as a lab technician, but showed such promise that Smith convinced him to attend graduate school. Berggren is now a scientist at the WiCell Research Institute.
Drossman, Smith's first graduate student, is now a professor and Chair of Environmental Sciences at Colorado College.
Griffin is an assistant professor with the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics at the University of Minnesota.
Giddings started out in Smith's lab tailoring code for sequence data analysis. Today, she is an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the Carolina Center for Genome Sciences at the University of North Carolina.
Luckey, currently at Roche NimbleGen, spent several years developing gel electrophoresis technology at GeneSys Technologies, which became part of MJ Bioworks.
After his postdoc, Strother joined GenTel, one of three biotechs Smith founded. Currently, Strother works in Thermo Fisher's near infrared spectroscopy group.