Member Spotlight: Aubrey Smith, Ph.D.

Aubrey Smith

Montgomery College.

How long have you worked in the cell biology field?
Approximately 20 years, with a mixture of cell biology, molecular biology, and  structural biology.

What is your field of research?
These days, I dabble in computational biology and bioinformatics. I am mostly concerned with involving students with research experiences while modeling cyanobacterial enzymes. In the near future, I plan to model human proteins associated with variants of uncertain significance (VUS).

What initially got you interested in becoming a scientist and then later specifically your field of research?
My high school chemistry and physics teachers inspired me to be a scientist with their stories about lab work  and the questions they tried to answer. In college, I had the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research. I was a chemistry major working on chemically modifying insulin for the purpose of studying its interaction with its receptor. The process was tedious and involved the synthesis of multiple insulin derivatives. When I learned that this could have been done through molecular cloning, I developed an interest in biochemistry and molecular biology. My work in grad school sparked a  lifelong interest in cyanobacteria.

What is going on in your research now that you are particularly excited about?
The most exciting part is to work with community college students who are elated to take part in authentic research experiences. We look forward to piloting some Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) to actively engage more of our students in research.

What is a challenge in your career and how did you overcome it?
I was diagnosed with End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) when I was in grad school. Having to undergo hemodialysis three times a week made it very difficult to devote enough time to lab work. I also suffered the rejection of a transplanted kidney. Thankfully, my Ph.D. advisor and the faculty of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (at Howard University) were very supportive and understanding.

What is some advice that you could give to an early career scientist?
Be prepared for changes and consider all career options in STEM. There are many ways to contribute to science and to find career fulfillment.

Why did you decide to become a member of ASCB and how has it helped your career?
I joined to make connections with cell biologists, especially those who are passionate about undergraduate STEM education and research. Some of what I learned at ACSB conferences convinced me to introduce CUREs in the biology curriculum.  

Do you volunteer with ASCB and if so, what is your role and why do you think it’s important to volunteer with the association?
I have served as a judge for the undergraduate posted competition at three ASCB conferences, and I would love to serve on a committee one day. Volunteering can help make valuable connections and provide mentorship opportunities.

Who is your scientific hero and how have they inspired your career?
My scientific hero is Rosalind Franklin. I learned her story from a professor who is also a female crystallographer. I was fascinated and inspired by Dr. Franklin’s resilience in the face of discrimination and ridicule. Her work on the crystal structure of viral proteins inspired many of us to study the relationship between protein structure and function.

What are some of the challenges you see in the future for your field of research or the scientific community as a whole?
The availability of excellent protein structure prediction tools allows us to involve undergraduate students in low-cost protein modeling and docking projects. However, even the best AI-based software is unable to accurately predict some aspects of protein-protein and protein-nucleic acid interactions. This is fine if we understand the limitations of the tools we use. Unfortunately, the general public expects miracles (for lack of a better term) from scientists, even when knowledge and data are limited. When scientists fail to deliver the magic bullet, some politicians and media outlets try to discredit the field to promote their own agenda.

What are you most optimistic about when it comes to the future of science?
I’m optimistic about our ability to teach the next generation about the process of science. I am also optimistic about the role of community colleges in the preparation of a diverse scientific workforce.

Any interesting hobbies or pastimes you enjoy that you would like to share?
I enjoy cooking, gardening, and collecting American whiskey!

About the Author:

This post was collaboratively written by several ASCB staff members.