Thomas Smith, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, is among the 508 scientists, engineers and innovators who have been elected 2022 AAAS Fellows for their scientifically and socially distinguished achievements throughout their careers.
While Smith’s latest project investigates the role of norovirus capsid flexibility in infection and pathogenesis, his research over the years has addressed a wide range of topics, ranging from rhinovirus vaccination to new therapeutic treatments for the hyperinsulinism/hyperammonemia to virally encoded antifungal proteins.
“The focus I’ve always had is ‘what’s a cool question,’” Smith said.
Smith said the fellowship award was largely based on his work on rhinovirus and antibodies. His latest work examines the norovirus and its ability to literally change its structure when it enters the gut. Because the gut is characterized by low pH, metals, and bile, it is a hostile environment to the norovirus as it exists in the circulatory system. Those changes in the norovirus form allow it to evade detection by antibodies that would normally kill the virus, while at the same time enhancing binding the cell receptor in the gut.
“To my knowledge, it’s the only case of a virus that can flip back and forth between forms,” Smith said. “Other viruses like influenza undergo massive changes in their structure so they can penetrate cells. But that’s a one-shot deal.”
A tradition dating back to 1874, election as an AAAS Fellow is a lifetime honor, and all Fellows are expected to maintain the highest standards of professional ethics and scientific integrity. Distinguished past honorees include W.E.B. DuBois, Ellen Ochoa, Steven Chu, Grace Hopper, Alan Alda and Mae Jemison. Joining the ranks of Fellows last year were roboticist Ayanna Howard, actor and science communicator Alan Alda and molecular biologist Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado.
“AAAS is excited to announce the newest class of fellows from across the scientific enterprise in a tradition dating back nearly 150 years and to honor their broad range of achievements,” said Sudip Parikh, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.