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Michael Beechert’s Guide to the Stars: Biology Professor Elizabeth Smith

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Elizabeth Smith.jpgElizabeth Smith is the Paul M. Dauton, Jr. Professor of Biological Sciences and the Associate Dean of the Faculty for the Sciences. Her research is focused in the field of cell biology, to which she has made significant contributions during a career that has spanned over two decades.

Smith was educated at Agnes Scott College in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, GA, where she received a B.A. with Honors in Biology in 1987. She then completed her Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental Biology at Emory University in 1992. Perhaps the humidity got to her, or perhaps not, but in any case Smith departed for colder pastures at the University of Minnesota, where she served as a postdoc from 1992 to 1998. Dartmouth came a-calling thereafter, and Smith has been in Hanover ever since. She received tenure in 2004, the rank of full professor in 2010, and her endowed chair in 2014. In the past few years, Smith has been especially busy when it comes to institutional service: from 2012 to 2015 she was Chair of the Biology Department, and in 2015 she was appointed Associate Dean of the Faculty for the Sciences.

Understanding Smith’s work, even on a basic level, may pose a bit of a challenge to those of us who had a tendency to develop sudden headaches during biology lectures in high school. It’s well worth the mental effort, though, in light of the fact that Smith’s research is both interesting — even from the perspective of someone without a scientific background — and applicable to important issues in human health. She sums up the activities of her lab as follows:

We use a combination of genetic, biochemical, structural and functional approaches to dissect the molecular mechanisms which control dynein-driven microtubule sliding to produce the high beat frequency and complex waveforms characteristic of motile eukaryotic cilia/flagella.

Cilia and flagella refer to the thin, wavy organelles — sub-units or components of a cell — that protrude outwards from the surface of almost every cell in the human body. There are two types of cilia, non-motile and motile. As the names imply, non-motile cilia do not move, whereas the motile variant do; I personally imagine the latter as the microbiological version of the waving, inflatable people you can see outside many a used car dealership.

Professor Smith focuses on these motile cilia, which perform a variety of essential biological tasks ranging from the circulation of cerebral spinal fluid in the brain and the clearing of debris from the lungs to moving a fertilized egg to a woman’s uterus. As such, defects in the formation or behavior of cilia can manifest themselves in a host of problems like hydrocephaly, respiratory difficulties, and infertility.

Cilia perform their functions by beating in coordinated waves that are dictated by an extremely complex process dependent on dynein, a type of protein which is mainly responsible for converting chemical energy into work. To do its job, dynein moves along what are called microtubules, the tiny tubular bodies that form the internal structure of cilia, creating a force that leads to the organelles’ characteristic bending motion. The transmission of the signals that regulate dynein movement, and by extension the behavior of cilia, depends in large part on the presence and concentration of molecules such as calcium in a cell. Through research that has been consistently funded to the tune of millions of dollars by the NIH and other organizations, Smith explores the precise mechanisms and variables behind this very complicated dance.

In recent years, Smith has taught a range of undergraduate and graduate courses in the Biology Department, including Cell Structure and Function, Advanced Topics in Cell Biology, and The Molecular Mechanisms of Cellular Responses. She has sat on dozens of undergraduate and graduate thesis committees and has employed numerous students in her laboratory, many of whom have gone on to pursue related careers in academia and industry.

Among Smith’s more notable accomplishments, moreover, is the purchase of state-of-the-art microscope work stations for undergraduate biology courses, which was funded by grant money from the NSF’s Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement program. Her initiative here is the reason why students of cell biology at Dartmouth can now take advantage of modern microscopy. Currently, the equipment is shared with students from local schools through outreach programs; access to such advanced technology is unusual for rural areas. And in the little spare time that she has, Smith manages to do things like organize and co-chair this recent Gordon Research Conference, which brought together scientists and clinicians dedicated to understanding mucociliary clearance. Hopefully, this sort of collaboration will lead to new therapies for diseases such as cystic fibrosis.


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