WSU regents professor Michael J. Smerdon is to receive the 2012 Eminent Faculty Award, the university’s highest honor given to faculty members, during this year’s Celebrating Excellence Recognition Banquet on March 30.
The Eminent Faculty Award was created in 2000 to honor high achieving faculty, said Frances McSweeney, vice provost for faculty affairs and WSU regents professor. It is given to one full-time faculty member each year that has demonstrated excellence in teaching, creative scholarship, research and service and has contributed greatly to the vitality and strength of the WSU community.
McSweeney said Smerdon was nominated for the award because he has done amazing work with DNA repair as well as an amazing amount of teaching and service for the university.
“I was surprised but honored and humbled to be given this award,” Smerdon said. “The colleagues that have received this award prior to me are outstanding and some were my mentors.”
Smerdon said the majority of his research surrounds DNA repair and how it relates to the packaging of DNA in a cell.
“It is damaged just from surviving,” he said. “We receive over 20,000 new DNA lesions per cell or points of DNA damage each day.”
Smerdon was one of the first scientists to discover that the packing of DNA in a cell has to be unfolded or unraveled before it can repair itself.
“DNA programs so many things so that if any part of it gets damaged, it can affect whatever function is responsible,” he said. “A lot of people that suffer from repair deficient syndromes can have greater risks of cancer, shorter life spans and severe neurological disorders.”
Smerdon said he has always had an interest in science, although he did not know he wanted to become a professor until he started on his undergraduate degree.
Smerdon graduated with a bachelor’s in physics and mathematics from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He earned a master’s degree in physics and Ph.D. in biophysics and biochemistry from Oregon State University.
He said while earning his master’s degree, his physics training had to be put on hold as his number was called to enter the draft for the war in Vietnam.
He said he failed the physical and that on the way home, decided to go into something fairly new at the time: biophysics.
“It was one exam I am happy I failed,” he said.
Smerdon said for his postdoctoral fellowship, he went to a lab that was studying DNA repair and that the principle investigator of the lab was interested in the same thing he was. They decided for him to start on a project looking at how DNA packaging influenced DNA repair.
“I was looking at DNA repair in human cells that we cultured in the lab,"he said."I had never done any of that. This was all new to me. As a physicist, you don’t see anything like that. It was fantastic. I got really excited at that point.”
Since joining WSU in 1980, Smerdon has earned a number of honors, including being elected chair of the Gordon Research Conference on Mammalian DNA Repair in 1995, receiving the 1997 Sahlin Faculty Excellence Award for Research Scholarship and Arts, delivering the 2000 WSU Distinguished Faculty Address, being named as the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the College of Sciences from 2001 to 2004 and being recognized in 2006 for being in the top five percent of extramural funding by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the last 25 years.
Smerdon has also been active in developing collaborations between the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, WSU and the Spokane medical community to further common interests in cancer prevention and the problems of environmentally induced cancers, according to a WSU News Center article.
The NIH has been funding his research for more than 30 years, and in 2012, Smerdon was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Feng Gong, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Miami School of Medicine, and one of Smerdon’s former students at WSU, said he is excited to hear the news that Smerdon is receiving the award and that he deserves it.
Gong worked with Smerdon as a research assistant professor researching DNA repair.
“Dr. Smerdon is very knowledgeable and very patient with his co-workers and students. He always explains the topic clearly,” he said. “He is a great man, taught by his actions.”
Gong said he is currently using Smerdon’s teaching style to train his students and run his laboratory at the University of Miami.
“He will continue to be a great source of inspiration for all his students in the years to come,” he said.
Smerdon will receive the Eminent Faculty Award at the Celebrating Excellence Recognition Banquet starting at 5:30 p.m. on March 30 in Beasley Coliseum.
Reservations are required for the event and space is limited, according to the Showcase 2012 website.