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Meet the newest UW virologist, Jason Smith

Dec 2010 | Michele LeRoux 776 Comments

The newest addition to the Microbiology faculty, Jason Smith comes to Seattle from a postdoc at Scripps Institute in southern California. Surprisingly, he prefers the Seattle climate to San Diego’s, finding changing seasons refreshing after several years of constant sunshine. Having recently become a faculty member, Jason is still becoming accustomed to more time in his office away from the bench.

“The best thing about being a PI is that you have the freedom to do whatever you want,” he says, but adds quickly that it is also the scariest aspect of his new role: there is never a guarantee that a given idea will pan out despite hard work, good science, and creativity. The most difficult aspect? “Sweating the dollars”. After years of training to become an excellent bench scientist, PIs have to transition rapidly into managing budgets, managing personnel, and finding funding. He still does his own experiments in the laboratory, but has to devote more time to balancing the books and writing grants.

In college, at the University of Pennsylvania, he had dreams of becoming an archaeologist, and double majored in anthropology and biochemistry. However, when he applied for a variety of technician jobs out of college, he ended up in Stephen Eck’s laboratory, where the focus of research was the use of viral vectors for gene therapy. He found that he really enjoyed bench research, especially with a translational focus. Dr. Eck was his first real mentor, and this was also where his interest in viruses began. He subsequently attended graduate school at Harvard, followed by a postdoc at Scripps.

His laboratory studies virus interactions with the human immune system. Defensins are a class of antimicrobial peptides, and have been shown to restrict adenovirus, a DNA virus responsible for respiratory, ocular, and gastrointestinal infections.  His current research is focused on details of defensin-mediated inhibition of non-enveloped viruses, such as adenovirus. The laboratory is also developing a mouse model to further explore the interaction. Currently, Jason’s laboratory consists of a technician, two undergraduates, and a Microbiology graduate student, Sarah Wilson, who joined his laboratory last spring.

Jason says he has benefited from excellent mentoring at all levels of his training, and is looking forward to acting as a mentor himself. “It is exciting to see science through fresh eyes,” he says, adding that he is still becoming accustomed to trusting someone else’s results. He is working on finding a balance between monitoring every piece of raw data and trusting the interpretation and analysis of his mentees.

Jason’s advice for current graduate students is to have a concrete career goal to work towards, even if it changes over time. In other words, make sure you know why you are here, and are driven by passion. He also says, “Apply for fellowships!”

In order to find balance in his life, Jason makes a point of taking time at home to shut off the science side of his brain by watching TV, reading fiction, and playing poker. “I love what I do, but I don’t live the job… I still end up thinking about science most of the time, but I do kick back and watch the Big Bang Theory every so often,” he says.  He also takes time away from the laboratory to travel with his wife, a senior scientist at Amgen. His favorite trip thus far was to Florence, which he describes as “a truly remarkable place”.

And finally, his science super power of choice: time travel. “I’d be all over the place,” he says.

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