The International Society for Computational Biology will honor Professor Temple Smith (BME) for his contributions to the field of bioinformatics with its Senior Scientist Accomplishment Award. The ISCB will present the award to Smith at its annual conference in Vienna, Austria in July.
According to the ISCB, the Senior Scientist Accomplishment Award recognizes members of the computational biology community who are more than 12 to 15 years post-degree and who have made major contributions to the field of computational biology through research, education, service, or a combination of the three. Smith co-developed the Smith-Waterman sequence alignment algorithm, the standard tool underlying most DNA and protein sequence comparison.
A nuclear physicist by training, Smith joined the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1970s, where he helped found GenBank and began applying computational mathematics to biological problems. In the nascent field of bioinformatics, Smith and colleague Michael Waterman were among those searching for a reliable mathematical method for searching separate strands of DNA for short sequences of proteins known to have similar functionality, and aligning them.
A serendipitous event occurred in 1980 when Waterman visited Smith, who was on sabbatical at Yale University. As the pair walked to lunch, they passed through the geology department lobby, where two large core samples on display stopped them in their tracks. Similar sequences of strata on different columns were connected by strings.
Smith and Waterman immediately saw the columns as strands of DNA and the comparable strata as the short protein sequences they were trying to align.
“We now faced the possibility that a geologist had solved the problem before us,” Smith said. Resigned, Smith and Waterman visited the geology chairman and asked how the sequence alignment had been done. Their mood elevated when the chairman informed them that visual observation and string were as far as anyone had advanced with a solution.
“Lo and behold this was an unsolved problem in geology,” Smith said. “This resulted in our first geology paper, basically written over the next couple of days.” With a fresh perspective, the team returned to bioinformatics work and published the Smith-Waterman sequence alignment algorithm the following year. It remains one of the most referenced papers in molecular biology.
Smith arrived at Boston University in 1991 and established the BioMolecular Engineering Research Center, which he directs. Early on, Smith organized a series of “Genes and Machines” workshops on the use of computer analysis in modern biology that introduced many young researchers to bioinformatics. The center’s research has focused on problems in the reconstruction of evolution, and the structure of proteins. The latter was one of the early applications of the Markov Model (used in voice-recognition and the prediction of stock market trends) to predict the three-dimensional structures of proteins.
Smith is a co-founded of Modular Genetics, a gene and protein engineering company based in Cambridge, Mass.