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A Big Team for a Big Lab


According to his bio, Richard Smith, chief scientist and director of proteomics research at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, has presented more than 350 lectures at major scientific meetings, authored almost 600 research publications, and holds some 27 patents. His research is primarily supported by both Department of Energy and the NIH and is centered on microbial systems, the environment, and a broad range of health-related research applications. Smith is also an adjunct or affiliate faculty member of the chemistry departments at Washington State University, the University of Utah, and the University of Idaho. In addition to a large résumé, Smith also likes to keep an equally large lab, on average composed of some 50 to 60 postdocs and researchers. He and his group are heavily involved both in proteomics technology-based platforms and the broad applications of proteomics measurements.

When it comes to his lab, Smith likes to populate it with folks who have the ability to not let their ego get in the way, which means the principles of working as a team and sharing credit are paramount. "What I look for is people who work really well with others, who collaborate, and who aren't afraid of working in a larger team, that's really important in this environment," he says. "It also helps to be a self starter, and beyond that, I really like people who are really critical in their thinking and don't take what I say for granted — who don't mind having their ideas challenged and who are willing to engage in a good scientific debate."

Smith says that the scientific potential that can result from maintaining a sizable group was first impressed upon him by his own graduate school mentor, Jean Futrell, a professor of physical and analytical chemistry at the University of Delaware. "He was a mass spectrometrist with a large group, and that influenced me a lot because I saw the benefits, first and foremost of which is the ability to tackle larger problems," Smith says. "That influence on me obviously persists to this day in my own group, which is tasked with developing pretty sophisticated instrumentation in order to do proteomics better, so that kind of impact from a mentor lasts throughout one's career."

Smith finds that sometimes getting newbies who come from smaller, more coddling labs to adjust to his big-team approach can be tough. "It's sometimes difficult for them to share credit for what they do, to really draw on what others can help them with, so I really try to create an environment where that can happen better and encourage them to work in that fashion," he says. Another challenge Smith says he's running into more frequently is a serious decline in writing chops. "Developing the ability to communicate well is really important, and not everybody comes with the skills you think they might or should have, so that's a general challenge that has grown in recent years," he says. "It might be because of the larger fraction of non-US citizens, but it may be something more fundamental than that."

Ultimately, Smith wants to imbue his postdocs with the ability to question their own ideas. "I think it's the development of critical thinking skills to question one's ideas, and to think down the road a little bit so that if you have a hypothesis and some experimental studies, what's the next step? Is it really worth pursuing?" he says. "Thinking like that is always a challenge for young scientists, because they're usually enamored of every new idea and it may not be the best one to pursue."

One former Smith postdoc is Joseph Loo, a professor in the department of biological chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles. Loo says there are two major things he remembers about his time in the Smith lab. The first is the way his mentor managed and put together his large research group. "During my time with Dick, we had chemical engineers, physicists, chemists, laser spectroscopists, separation scientists, protein chemists, and mass spectrometrists in the group," says Loo. "It was a luxury to have this resource of knowledge at arm's length, and we all could grow as a result. I try to find postdocs, researchers, and students with different backgrounds for my lab at UCLA because of my experience with Dick."

Another quality of Smith's that sticks out in Loo's mind is his former mentor's insistence on not being afraid of failing when going after big ideas. "Nine ideas out of 10 may not work, but that one idea that was successful might be the one that leads to a huge new discovery," he says. "I can't recall a time that Dick discouraged me from trying an experiment that I thought had a chance of working, regardless of how silly it sounded ... I try to instill this philosophy in my students, but the fear of failure is a tough emotion to suppress for some."

One anecdote that Loo recalls with affection perhaps best exemplifies Smith's patience and easy demeanor. "How many mentors would not worry and not be upset if a postdoc accidentally sets a mass spectrometer on fire? In hindsight, I suppose a combination of pure oxygen, alcohol, and an electrical discharge should equal fire," says Loo. "Watching an electrospray source on fire, spewing flames and soot into the vacuum system of the instrument, was a surreal experience for me [but] oddly enough, Dick didn't seem to be too worried." Loo says that if it had been his mass spectrometer, he would have been visualizing research grants going down the drain. But it was Smith's faith in his postdoc's ability to get the machine up and running that Loo says turned the incident from a traumatic moment into an edifying experience.

Naming Names

Here are just a handful of the postdocs who have passed through Smith's large lab over the years.

Jospi Blonder
While in Smith's lab, Blonderworked on developing methods for enrichment, solubilization, and digestion of complex membrane -protein mixtures using bottom-up proteomics. He is now a senior research scientist in the laboratory of proteomics and analytical -technologies at SAIC-Frederick.

P. Lee Ferguson
Ferguson is currently an assistant -professor in the department of -chemistry and biochemistry at the University of South Carolina. He is still very much involved in mass spec, using the technology to investigate problems in environmental toxicology.

Dave Goodlett
After leaving Smith's lab, Goodlett held a number of positions in pharma including research scientist at BristolMyersSquibb and Johnson & Johnson. He is now an associate professor at the University of Washington, where he develops methods to characterize proteomes and define lipid and protein structure-function relationships.

Michael Goshe
While in Smith's lab, Goshe worked on developing proteomic approaches for quantifying phosphorylation and analyzing membrane proteins. He is currently an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, where he continues to work on phosphorlyation signaling events and protein structural dynamics.

Steven Hoftsalder
During his time with Smith, Hoftsalder developed high-performance -instrumentation and methodologies based on Fourier transform ion -cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry. He is now the vice president of research at Ibis Bioscience.

Lingjun Li
Li did a three-way postdoc in Smith's lab, at Brandeis University, and at the University of Illinois. She is now an -associate professor in the school of pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she uses crustacean stomatogastric nervous systems as a model system for studying the neural basis of rhythmic behavior.