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Michael Smith retires after helping genomic technologies flourish

From researcher to program director, Smith looks back on his 30-year career at NIH.

Not many people publish their first scientific paper while in high school. For Michael Smith, Ph.D., that feat was the beginning of many scientific endeavors that took him from researching feral pigs to leading a world-class grants program in genomics.  

For the past 10 years, he worked as a program director at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he led the genomic technology development program and coordinated small business genomics research.

As a program director in NHGRI’s Extramural Research Program, Dr. Smith led efforts to broaden approaches for developing DNA sequencing technologies and helped shape the genomic technology landscape that has been the key driver in genomic advances for the past decade. His work coordinating NHGRI’s small business program has also helped many start-up companies to scale up, commercialize and flourish.

Dr. Smith spent his childhood in a small town in South Carolina and helped his father conduct ecological fieldwork. Following his father’s footsteps, he went on to study science, earning a bachelor's degree in zoology and statistics from the University of Georgia and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University with a concentration in molecular genetics.

Before joining NHGRI, Dr. Smith spent 20 years at the National Cancer Institute, where he developed genomic technologies and studied conditions such as kidney failure, HIV/AIDS and diabetes.

Reflecting on his NIH career, Dr. Smith recounts his journey from researcher to program director in a conversation with NHGRI science writer Sonja Soo, Ph.D. He looks ahead to a retirement filled with traveling, spending time with friends and family, playing pickleball and brewing ale.  

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Soo: When did you first know you wanted to study science and genetics?


Smith: I knew early on that I was interested in the sciences. My dad was an ecologist, so growing up, I did field work with him before I knew it was field work. I worked in his laboratory and published my first paper on population genetics of feral pigs as a high school student.


I was super fortunate that one of my father's friends, Eugene Odum, was the father of ecology. He offered a course at the University of Georgia, and I took it! In that class, we had to write a term paper on anything biological, and I chose to focus on the controversy around recombinant DNA technologies. I remember flipping through the pages of the news section of Science and reading about the prospects, fears, controversy and boundaries of genetic engineering. The subject of my term paper together with Dr. Odum’s broadly defined assignment helped me narrow my focus to molecular genetics in graduate school.

Soo: What did you do before joining NIH and NHGRI?


Smith: I did a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Diego for two years. When I finished that project and it was time for me to move on, my wife reminded me that we would only leave San Diego when I had a real job.


My mentor, Russ Doolittle, suggested that I go across the street to the Salk Institute and talk to Glen Evans, who was recently funded to work on the Human Genome Project, studying human chromosome 11. Glen hired me, allowing me to work on the Human Genome Project for three years. My focus was on developing DNA sequencing capabilities, which were applied to generate sequence-tagged sites – sites in DNA that served as unique markers for mapping the human genome.


I had a dream of running my own laboratory, so I pursued that interest by moving to what became the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research at the National Cancer Institute. I was in the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, where my group developed new technologies and techniques for human genetic studies. We worked on developing methods for mapping disease genes and studied conditions such as kidney failure and diabetes. Some high points were performing the analyses involved in the discovery of the CCR5 gene’s role in AIDS progression and the mapping of the Apol1 gene region that is a major contributor to kidney disease in African Americans.


I also had the opportunity to direct some core laboratories in genetics and genomics. We utilized, acquired and implemented some of the most advanced techniques in the field for NCI researchers. My fundamental skills in genomics were refreshed and refined by the opportunity and positioned me nicely for the move over to NHGRI.

Soo: How did you decide to make the switch from doing research to directing programs?


Smith: It was a lot of fun to run a laboratory, but it was also hard. When I stopped having a laboratory, I had published just over 100 papers, spanning across many areas including ecology, genomics, admixture, HIV and AIDS, cardiovascular and kidney disease. I knew it was time to change, and I had been thinking about what was next. There was an opportunity for me at NHGRI, where they needed someone knowledgeable about developing genomic technologies, and I had that expertise.

Soo: Were there any projects you worked on as an NHGRI program director that you're particularly proud of?


Smith: We really pushed DNA sequencing technologies forward in the genome technology program, which has been and is fundamental to advancing the field of genomics specifically and biomedical research more broadly. We also revamped and diversified the program by enabling the development of a broad swath of different and impactful genomic technologies. We also added a technology development coordinating center — a first at NIH. This new center brings investigators together virtually on a monthly basis to facilitate interactions and discussions and yearly to an in-person grantee meeting to accelerate progress.


Our team also managed the congressionally mandated small business program referred to by the Small Business Administration as “America’s Seed Fund.” Genomics is a growing area with tremendous opportunities for small businesses. The NHGRI small business program has enabled many investigators and companies to grow and transition to commercialization through our guidance and funding. As an example, one of many successes of the program was funding the development of ultralong DNA sequencing technologies that were critical to the successful completion of the first telomere-to-telomere, gapless human genome sequence in 2022.


I'm proud of the extramural research team that's come together to push genomic technology development at the Institute going forward.

Soo: What are you most excited about for the future of genomics?


Smith: From my perspective, genomics has always been exciting. It's a little scary to think about it, but I look forward to the day where not only can you routinely benefit from telomere-to-telomere genomics-based medicine, but you can also purchase genome sequences from a company and for any species of interest. I look forward to genomics having even broader applicability to biological sciences, medicine and our world.

Soo: Now that you’re retiring, what are you looking forward to spending your time on?


Smith: I definitely plan to brew more and better beer. I started brewing in 1992 when I was at the Salk Institute. I have some personal recipes that I'm working to refine, and I plan to make plenty to share with family and friends. Traveling is also high on the list of things I will do. Of course, spending more time with family and friends will be very enjoyable.


I’m retiring on the younger side by choice so that I have as many “go-go” years as possible. I plan to exercise more, take care of myself and get out into nature. I’ve also been playing pickleball for about four years. I have enjoyed playing every couple of days around my work schedule, so I’m looking forward to playing whenever I can and want.


With every major life transition, you don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into, so I haven’t fully figured it out yet. I assume it’s a bit like riding a bike or doing something else for the first time. It is reassuring to know that many adventures and opportunities await.

Last updated: January 30, 2023