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Dr. Harold C. Smith

Dr. Harold C. Smith:
A Life of Discovery

By: Ben DeGeorge
First Published: Sunday, March 11, 2007

Harold Smith, Chief Science Officer of OyaGen, Inc. and professor at the University of Rochester, has seen much success through his works in Molecular Biology. In this field, often much time is spent working in a lab for the rare possibility of a discovery. Harold, who interestingly enough looks like a Grateful Dead musician said; “When you discover something you realize how rare it is to uncover a fundamental truth as to how the world works.” Harold, 53 years old, is in a field called RNA editing. His company, OyaGen, is doing its best to solve a major disease of the world, HIV. Theirs is a therapeutic focus upon the treatment of this, through protecting the body’s immune system. Like many who have seen success he said “I have myself completely programmed, where my career is seamless with my life. I am a scientist.” In order to be successful, Harold said he must, “Have a prepared mind; be someone who wants to discover more.”

Harold Smith sees life from several view points. He was born inGermany. His father, an American military man, was stationed there during Harold’s Childhood. Harold’s mother was full blooded Austrian. He said his family “learned the language to fit in with the culture.” The only evidence of America that young Harold had was the gifts from America that other children received for Christmas. In 6thgrade, his father retired to Massachusetts. As a result of his time inEurope, Harold “can see things from a European and American perspective.” He said; “I can be critical and defensive of the Unites States. My view is more balanced. I have a greater tolerance for international people, because I work with them.”

Harold attended Purdue University in 1972 with plans on pursuing veterinary school. “I knew I was going to go to vet school.” He said; “Knowing that worked against me; I stopped applying myself.” Harold started to slip a little bit in his studies. He did well, but did not fully immerse himself in the material. During his sophomore year he met Jenny Lyverse, who was five years older than him. He said that it was a “critical point when I met Jenny. She was rational, mature and stable. She gave me the ability to focus. I turned around immediately and emerged as the individual that you see now.” It seems true that behind every great man is a great woman; behind this man is Jenny. The two got married when Harold was twenty-two. Many questioned why he was marrying so young but Harold would reply, “When you find something like this you don’t question it.”

Jenny and Harold

Harold enrolled in a research class, which sparked his interest in science. “Then it took off.” He ended up pursuing a Bachelors of Science in Animal Sciences with a minor in Bio-Chemistry and later, a Masters in Science at the School of Medicine, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology. He said, “Why I should work hard isn’t even a question for me now.”

During this time Harold was inspired by his Biology Professor, Michael Forman, who “lectured as if he told a story.” Harold said; “He showed a passion in his teaching that I recognized immediately. It was entertaining like The Lord of the Rings.” He now teaches Undergraduate Molecular Biology Techniques and Medical School Biochemistry. His relationship with his students is akin to that of friendship. They come to him with many of their ideas or problems. “I could be out there like Lewis and Clark making discoveries, but instead I have an entourage of students following me. That’s the part I enjoy.” He said; “The goal here is to train people to be better than you are.” If Harold could change one thing about the world he “would like to change the attitude in the education system to where learning and knowledge is as cool as a new pair of sneakers.”

During his time at Purdue, Harold read two books for a class project;Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach and Russell Munson, andThe Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda. These two very different pieces spoke to him as he read them in tandem. They taught him that “You have to make a personal effort to succeed in life, you have to have goals, but this isn’t good enough; you have to pursue them.” He wrote a paper about the pathway to knowledge which would go on to embody his quest for success.

Harold attended SUNY Buffalo for doctoral work, earning a Masters of Arts & Doctorate of Philosophy in the Department of Biology, Division of Cell & Molecular Biology. He then went on to do Post-Doctoral work at Baylor College in Houston Texas, before moving to the Rochester, New York, area and becoming a faculty member at the University of Rochester. He has made a definite impact in his discipline, RNA editing, by making vital progress in the early stages of the field. “Coming out of Post-Doctoral work, I was primed with technique. I had most of the data, hypotheses, and method together that has shaped the field for the last fifteen years.” Harold said, “Everything turned out just right because no one was in this area yet.”

Harold has in part seen success and happiness because of the university that he works in. “The University of Rochester has a level of collegiality where they share across departments.” He said, “It is a major player on the University scene. My department of biochemistry is ranked 15th in the nation.” He is able to come and go as he pleases; working at the bench on projects, teaching and mentoring students and being a key player in discoveries in his field. He said, “If you can handle the amount of obligation to continually write grants and papers (there is no resting on past discoveries) and stress, it is one of those incredible careers where every day you go to work but are not technically working.”

Harold is the founder of the RNA editing Gordon Conference, a meeting of the minds for his field. He described the conceptualization and creation of this conference as one of his “wow” moments. He said, “It was the second day of the conference and I was standing back, watching; and it had acquired its own life.” Now in its tenth year, the conference has gained notoriety of its own. It is held every other year in California with a guest list of only 120 people. He said the beauty of this is that “they are at breakfasts and dinners talking to each other. If you put two scientists on a boat for a whale watch, you know they are talking about DNA.”

One thing that has Harold in a thicket lately has been the barriers to acquire scientific grants. Because of the United States’ budget and international factors, now only 2% of all new grants are accepted. At the University of Rochester, a professor of Harold’s sort is required to bring in 70-80% of their salary and the salary of their students and staff through grants. “Right now, I have no money for risk taking projects.” He said that currently, “I can not hire new people and I even had to let my technical staff go.” He feels that a way to solve the problems stemmed by this is to “activate the private sector,” which Harold is doing through his work with OyaGen.

Harold’s workspace

OyaGen Inc. is a development stage biopharmaceutical company, founded in 2003, to commercialize therapies that can fight viral illness through editing enzymes in humans. Particularly, their focus is on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Right now, there are over forty million people living with HIV and Harold is working to change that. The company is in the process of trying to raise $20 million from venture capitalists in order to pay for the first two phases of clinical trials for their drug. Harold, OyaGen’s founder and Chief Science Officer, said, “Had I not been in that editing field, I would not have been in the position to start a company.”

In entering into the private sector “there was no master plan.” He said, “It’s a matter of being prepared and wanting to take the next step.” Harold himself is surprised that he has entered the business world. “If during my academic years I ever had told my adviser I wanted to go into business, I would not have gotten good laboratory placement.” He went through an internal struggle about whether he was going into business for an opportunity for scientific growth or for financial reasons. He said, “If it was for a financial reason I wouldn’t do it.” He came to grips with the fact that OyaGen is a discovery company, not one driven by financial reasons. He said, “In the company there is discovery, in my lab there is discovery, I teach discovery. My whole life is filled with discovery.” Harold, one to commit to any endeavor he partakes in, started to read the Wall Street Journal every day in order to keep abreast with the business world.

Harold said that in academia “papers represent milestones and accomplishments.” His success is shown tangibly with more than 100 publications. He also, of course, has success through teaching others. “Students write me who I taught twelve years ago with pictures of their babies.” He said, “They say ‘it was your course that got me to where I am today.’ As an educator you can reach others.”

Harold considers his family one of his larger successes. He has three loving children; Owen, 23, a graduate student at Albany who is pursuing a similar path to his father’s, Biology, Hanna, 18, who is attending Cornell University as an engineer student, and Sam, 15 wants to go to college to be a veterinarian. All three children are academically sound like Harold. They are also all involved in sports; Owen and Hanna in Tae Kwon Do, Sam in Swimming and Track. In addition they are very musically oriented. The Smith children are baby geniuses; types who are driven to succeed like their father. Harold does not have a grand vision for his children, but said, “My main hope is that they can have a life like mine. One where they meet someone who is a good person where there is intellectual heart sharing. I hope they can have kids that are as good to them as they have been to me.” He creates an environment of love that his children love going home to. In regard to Harold’s students and children, he said, “You can live vicariously through others success.”

Harold in his office

“Usually many are in conflict with their career and life. I don’t have that conflict.”

It is interesting to look at Harold’s secrets to success. He said; “I consider myself a work in progress.” He is a very busy person with many responsibilities. “I work as if I have artificial deadlines, so then when something else comes up I can accommodate.” He said, “It makes everything so smooth.” He has to constantly be writing grants. He accomplishes this by “[going] with a stream of consciousness.” His greatest strengths are his tenacity and perseverance. “I want the first bullet. I want to try that.” For him having a strong ego is a must, “otherwise you will be crushed by the consequences.” He said, “This has served me well. “Whenever I feel down heartened I turn and say ‘You can do this.’” The flip side of this is “the effect can be somewhat severe for some people.”

Harold survives on six hours of sleep a night. He enjoys watching movies in his recreation time. His favorites are any movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and The 13th Warrior. Harold is also a great cook. “I try to volunteer for this as much as possible.” One will enjoy great gastrointestinal pleasure if they attend dinner at the Smith Household. Both Harold and Jenny are fantastic cooks, bringing together German and Austrian dishes with an American twist. Harold enjoys skiing (with or without his children), running, and walking his dog. He is a big lover of music; having played guitar in folk bands from time to time. His favorite musician is Elton John, whose album “Tumbleweed Connection” was his first record. Harold’s favorite candy bar is the Zero bar and he suggests one go to Hershey,Pennsylvania for an “immersion in chocolate.”

Harold enjoys books about process. One of his favorites is The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester“I like to read books about the person behind the discovery, because I’m looking for further growth myself.”

“Biomedical research scientists look at discovery as a privilege for the individual.” Harold looks forward to those rare moments of discovery in his field as “they make everything else in the career worthwhile.” He has to work extremely hard, sometimes resulting in dead ends that would dissuade many from his field. “The big part of the work comes from planning the trajectory and path for your research.” He said he is challenged to “define the real question because you go in so many ways.”

Harold is excited that now is such a great time for a scientist to be working. “If you look at this century of discovery you see some people still alive who saw a time without airplanes. Now we are talking about the risk of someone cloning a human being.” He said; “this is an incredible time for discovery.” If he could live in any time period it would be “sometime when there really is a First Science Officer on a Starship Enterprise.”

Harold plans on “living at intensity” in his professions for the next ten or fifteen years. He wants to, “Not get derailed or lose hope to be a risk taker.” Science is a part of Harold’s life. He said, “I can be at Wegmans, shopping and all of a sudden ‘boing’ I think of an idea.” Looking back on his career thus far, Harold said, “I am fortunate to get the timing right and ‘see that sunset.’” Advice he gives to the world is “don’t waste the gift, live up to your potential.” Also, he said, “Don’t be dissuaded by your goals or by failure. In every failure is an answer as to why it failed and what you need to do next time.” If you stay focused, “in the end you will win.”

Dr Harold C Smith
Chief Science Officer, OyaGen Inc.
Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics
University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry
601 Elmwood Ave, Box 712
Rochester, New York 14642

Office: Medical Center G-7415
Telephone: Office: (585) 275-4267; Lab: (585) 275-1882
Fax: (585) 275-6007
E-Mail: Harold.Smith@rochester.edu


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