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Funding the Next Generation of Science

Hamilton Smith Award for Innovative Research honors, bolsters spirit of discovery and creativity
Posted April 12, 2016

The Hamilton Smith Award for Innovative Research

Hamilton Smith, a 1956 alumnus of the School of Medicine who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine, wasn’t looking to change the future of biology. In 1968, he was just a young researcher who one day decided to investigate a chance observation in the lab. His curiosity led to a breakthrough discovery in genetics, one that would pave the way for DNA technology and DNA sequencing.

Today, these unplanned moments are just as important to the future of scientific inquiry, but, unfortunately, it’s much harder for investigators to pursue. The current research environment is hampered by tight funding and strict reporting requirements that don’t easily allow for flights of unplanned inspiration. 

Thanks to the generous support of School of Medicine faculty, alumni, and staff, there is an exciting new award that offers young scientists more freedom to explore — fittingly, it is named the Hamilton Smith Award for Innovative Research.

Those behind the new prize are exactly those who best understand the need for such resources. The fundraising effort to create the award was spearheaded by Jeremy Nathans, MD, PhD, a professor of molecular biology and genetics, neuroscience, and ophthalmology in the School of Medicine, and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In addition to making a financial commitment of his own, he rallied support from more than 50 colleagues and alumni to create the necessary endowment.

For Nathans, the effort was especially meaningful. His father, Daniel Nathans, MD, who taught at Hopkins for nearly 40 years and served as its interim president, shared the Nobel Prize with Smith.

“If you look at the history of science, what you see is that freeing the creative scientific spirit is the winning strategy. It’s incredibly liberating to have flexible research support,” he says. “Being able to buy new equipment, pursuing a new line of inquiry without applying for and waiting for a grant — these can be the key to making a breakthrough.”

The Hamilton Smith Award provides funding for junior faculty members from one of the nine departments of the Institute for Basic Biomedical Research (IBBS), with the winner chosen by senior faculty members from the departments. Jie Xiao, an associate professor of biophysics and biophysical chemistry, who works at the frontier of imaging dynamic processes in live cells, is the inaugural award winner.

The goal for Xiao and her students is to visualize fundamental cellular processes in great detail, showing everything from the regulations of genes to the assembly of macromolecular machineries. Being able to see the lives of cells up close, Xiao says, is the dream of many biologists and could lay the foundation for significant medical advances.

She says that she feels both blessed and humbled that the Smith award will help her pursue these important endeavors. The award shows the determination of Dr. Nathans and the Hopkins community to continue Dr. Smith’s legacy, and to cultivate an environment that encourages and inspires young scientists.

“Not only do we benefit from the extraordinary discoveries of those who came before us,” Xiao says, “but their achievements serve as models for those of us in the world of science who seek inspiration from the great work of others.”