As a budding scientist at the University of Oxford, Oliver Smithies sat in a lecture hall listening to Linus Pauling, one of only four people to have ever won the Nobel Prize twice.
Only an undergraduate at the time, Smithies took the words of Pauling, who won the award once for his work on chemical bonds and quantum physics and again for his campaign against nuclear weapons and violence, and eventually won a Nobel Prize of his own.
Now, with the money he won for his work in gene modifications in mice using embryonic stem cells, Smithies is looking to deliver the same experience to the latest generation of students by funding an annual speech by a fellow Nobel Prize winner.
“It was spectacular,” Smithies said. “I would like the schools to use the money to give their students the same feeling I had.”
The first speaker, coming March 8, will be Tom Steitz, a 2009 Nobel laureate in chemistry. In addition to his research, Steitz is expected to speak on the experiences and challenges of his life to demonstrate how he achieved one of the world’s highest honors.
“The big goal for these speeches is inspiration, motivation, career mentoring and sharing of their life experiences,” said Kathleen Caron, assistant dean of research for the School of Medicine, who is overseeing the series.
Recipients other than UNC include the University of Oxford, the University of Toronto and the University of Wisconsin. Smithies declined to comment on his cash award or the portion each school would receive.
“I wanted to give money to each of the universities that have been important in my life,” said Smithies, who began teaching at UNC 20 years ago after arriving with his wife, Nobuyo Maeda. They are both distinguished professors of pathology and lab medicine in the School of Medicine.
Each of the schools will use the money differently, but Smithies said he suggested they use it to invite speakers to their campuses in hopes of motivating students.
“Our mission is to provide career mentoring and recognize the post-doctorates on campus,” said Doug Cyr, faculty adviser for the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs.
“We want to give them opportunities to meet big scientists.”
The Office of Postdoctoral Affairs has played a large role in the logistical planning, scheduling, and publicizing of the symposia.
Smithies’ donation was generous enough that Caron expects there will be funds to bring speakers for the next dozen years without any additional fundraising.
But they plan on raising funds regardless, Caron said.
“We also hope to get corporate and philanthropic sponsorships for the symposia,” she said.
She said these sponsorships would allow the Nobel speaker series to become a tradition at UNC.
In 2012, Thomas Cech, the 1989 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, will deliver the speech, though the speakers will not always come from a scientific field.
Caron said Nobel laureates of all sorts will be invited for the symposia in the spirit of the University’s liberal arts tradition. Without Smithies’ reputation, Caron said some of the speakers might have been unattainable.
“A lot of being able to get these speakers is to Oliver’s credit,” she said.
“They’re doing it for him.”
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