The BioMolecular Engineering Research Center (BMERC) at Boston University, directed by Professor Temple F. Smith (see ), has two major research objectives. The first is to develop statistical and other computational approaches to the detection of syntactic and semantic patterns in DNA, RNA, and protein sequences. The second is to use the approaches thus developed to identify structure, function, and regulation in DNA, RNA, and proteins.
The pursuit of these objectives, Smith notes, “has led to the formulation and testing of major hypotheses in the areas of molecular evolution, gene regulation, developmental genetics, and protein structure–function relationships.” The success of Smith's research program has been attested to in many ways, not least by his receipt of the ISCB's Accomplishment by a Senior Scientist Award for 2007.
The award recognizes members of the computational biology community who have made major contributions to the field through research, education, service, or a combination of the three. It acknowledges community members who are more than 12 years post-degree.
“Professor Smith's contributions go well beyond those for which he is best known,” says Lengauer, “and he is a towering figure in bioinformatics, one of the founders of the discipline. In addition to starting GenBank and being the Smith of the Smith–Waterman algorithm, he has done seminal work on the entropy of the genetic code and on pattern-directed protein structure prediction. Other influential work includes research on gene prediction, molecular phylogenies, multiple sequence alignments, and the analysis of sequence patterns. His results have had tremendous impact on the field. He has been an organizer and co-organizer of the meetings and symposia of the multiple disciplines that intersect in computational biology as well as of educational and outreach programs for young students. Smith feels that the organizing of the ‘Waterville Valley' meetings [starting in 1986] was key in introducing many younger scientists to both bioinformatics and the fields of the older leaders. He has served on undergraduate, graduate, curriculum, and tenure committees as well. And his BioMolecular Engineering Research Center at the Boston University College of Engineering is a superlative resource for a wide variety of endeavors.”
Smith obtained his doctorate in nuclear physics from the University of Colorado in 1969 and was a National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoctoral fellow with Stanislaw Ulam, T. T. Puck, and John R. Sadler, studying bacterial genetic regulation. He then took an appointment as professor of physics at Northern Michigan University, spending summers as a visiting staff member in applied mathematics and theoretical biology at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, with Stanislaw Ulam, George Bell, Walter Goad, Bill Beyer, and, of course, Mike Waterman. It was there that he helped to organize GenBank.
In 1978–1979, Smith spent a sabbatical year working with Harold Morowitz at Yale University, exploring the relationships among biology, physics, and history. In the following year, he was a visiting professor at the University of Southern California. From 1985 to 1991, Smith directed the Molecular Biology Computational Research Resource of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard School of Public Health.
Moving to Boston University in 1991, Smith became a professor in the departments of bioengineering and pharmacology and director of BMERC. His center is currently working under NIH and NSF (National Science Foundation) grants on activation of inflammation stress response pathways, cellular signaling problems (with the Alliance for Cellular Signaling), the generation of automated models of protein folds, and the core genomics of the origin of eukaryotes. Smith serves on the editorial boards of Molecular Biology and Evolution and the Journal of Computational Biology.
Interviewed recently by a science writer at Boston University, Smith explained how he and Waterman came to write their only geology paper. It was a serendipitous event, Smith told Michael Seele, that occurred when Waterman visited him at Yale University. Seele wrote, for an upcoming issue of the Boston University College of Engineering Magazine:
“As the pair walked to lunch, they passed through the geology department lobby, where two large core samples on display stopped them in their tracks. Similar sequences of strata on different columns were connected by strings. Smith and Waterman immediately saw the columns as strands of DNA and the comparable strata as the short protein sequences they were trying to align. ‘We now faced the possibility that a geologist had solved the problem before us,' Smith said. Resigned, Smith and Waterman visited the geology chairman and asked how the sequence alignment had been done. Their mood elevated when the chairman informed them that visual observation and string were as far as anyone had advanced with a solution. ‘Lo and behold! This was an unsolved problem in geology,' Smith said. ‘This resulted in our first geology paper, basically written over the next couple of days.' With a fresh perspective, the team returned to bioinformatics work and published the Smith–Waterman sequence alignment algorithm the following year. It remains one of the most referenced papers in molecular biology.”
Of his award, Smith says, “I'm truly honored to join my longtime friend and colleague Mike Waterman, who preceded me in winning this award last year, as well as the distinguished company of previous winners.
“People sometimes date the history of our field back to the algorithm that I wrote with Mike. I find, instead, that the seeds of both computational approaches and general interdisciplinarity were sown somewhat earlier—for example, at a Symposium on Evolving Genes and Proteins held at Rutgers [University] in 1964 and published in The Quarterly Review of Biology in March 1966. The problems of our age are also prefigured in the works of those we count as the great thinkers in evolutionary biology: J. B. S. Haldane, D'Arcy Thompson, Sewall Wright, Salvador Luria, and Max Delbrück. As I hope to explain in my keynote address at ISMB/ECCB 2007, what is new today in computational biology is the wealth of data that we have and the overwhelming complexity of biological systems as we move toward future challenges in bioinformatics.”
Last year's winner of the Accomplishment by a Senior Scientist Award, Mike Waterman, will present the award in Vienna and introduce Temple Smith's keynote address, titled “Computational Biology: What's Next?” to close the conference on July 25, 2007. To read additional biographical information and an abstract of Smith's keynote address, see http://www.iscb.org/ismbeccb2007/keynotespresentations/#smith