Editorials

Forget the college cheating scandal. Mizzou’s Nobel winner shows the best of higher ed

University of Missouri scientist wins Nobel Prize in chemistry

Three researchers, including George Smith of the University of Missouri, who “harnessed the power of evolution” to produce enzymes and antibodies that have led to a new best-selling drug and biofuels won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in December 2018.
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Three researchers, including George Smith of the University of Missouri, who “harnessed the power of evolution” to produce enzymes and antibodies that have led to a new best-selling drug and biofuels won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in December 2018.

It was one grim week in higher ed, with Hollywood actors and CEOs exposing not just what disrespectful parents they are but how corrupt the whole college admissions process is. Not content to buy their kids’ entrée into top schools the old-fashioned way, with donations and the promise of more donations, they decided to streamline the process. And wound up, quite in spite of themselves, teaching their progeny that contrary to everything they may have seen and been told up until now, actions do have consequences.

This epic display of mingy, me-me-me obliviousness did have a couple of unterrible side effects, though: It made those of us who have humiliated our children in less spectacular and criminal ways feel better. And it threw the humility and generosity of George P. Smith, the bike-riding 77-year-old University of Missouri biology professor emeritus who won last year’s Nobel Prize for chemistry, into lapidary relief.

Here is a guy who spent his professional life researching genetic diversity — not a known glide path to big bucks.

Yet what is he doing with his $250,000 check from Stockholm? Why, he’s giving every last krona back to MU students by starting the Missouri Nobel Scholarship Fund for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Not only is he making an education possible for future George P. Smiths, but he’s also giving a much-needed boost to the tragically undervalued liberal arts.

“This might surprise some people,” he said at a community event in Columbia with his wife, Margie, “but my first degree was actually a bachelor of arts, not a bachelor of science. My liberal arts education was the springboard for a lifetime of learning and cultural engagement. Margie and I hope that supporting the liberal arts as a whole will enrich the lives of future Mizzou students, whatever careers they choose.”

Smith came to Missouri in 1975, and since his retirement in 2015 has kept a lab on campus, and continued to teach an honors class about world issues.

He’s also giving all of us a free lesson in modesty: “I don’t know if I particularly want to say that I am proud personally of this award because as I think all Nobel laureates understand, they are in the middle of a huge web of science, of influence and ideas, of research and results that impinge on them and that emanate from them.” Refreshing, right?

His Nobel, shared with two other researchers, was for developing phage display, which allows a virus that infects bacteria to evolve new proteins. That work has been used to improve treatments for metastatic cancer and autoimmune diseases.

“I happened to be in the right place at the right time to put those things together,” Smith said. “I am getting an honor that has been earned by a whole bunch of people.”

Dr. Smith, you honor Missouri — your university and your state — with not only your Nobel-winning work but with your world-class heart.

And may we dwell a fraction as much on your example as on the stunning realization that Aunt Becky from “Full House” is a cheater.

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