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Emeritus Professor David Smith

School of Physics, Mathematics and Computing

"Find your bearings, set your course, and enjoy your journey through a mad world."

For the last 20 years Professor David Smith has tried to construct quantitative models of biological systems that can explain more experimental data than alternative explanations, while making testable predictions. The biological system may be an intracellular signaling pathway, or a tissue that maintains homeostasis, or an organ that performs a physiological function. In most cases, he has employed the models to try and understand how disease processes unfold over time. For examples, Professor Smith has developed bone models to explain the development of osteoporosis, renal models to explain hypoxia induced acute kidney injury, and eye models to explain the development of glaucoma.

Most interesting aspect of my career

Probably my gradual realization that science, medicine, and engineering are fundamentally rooted in human imagination, but practicing is terribly confused by all manner of human foibles, needs, behaviors and our innate eccentricities, which occupy most of our lives. The practice of science, medicine, and engineering is a long, long way from the ideal that I took away from Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and Jonathan Miller’s The Body in Question, all those years ago. But that noble ideal does still exist for brief, shimmering moments, which give one hope, providing the motivation to carry on.

Most important experiences at UWA

The cultural primacy of research at the institution, the research support systems, being able to and being encouraged to ‘get on with it’ by like-minded colleagues and students.

Where did you think you would end up when you began your career?

I thought I would make a great doctor but dropped out in the third year of medical school as I experienced first-hand the gap between one’s knowledge and what patients actually expected, and indeed, what they needed. I then did engineering, and eventually was able to put my medical knowledge to work as a biomedical engineer, where I felt much more motivated and comfortable.

What do you consider to be your most significant achievements?

Probably starting and then teaching into the biomedical engineering courses at The University of Melbourne, and the papers published on developing new computational models about contaminant transport related to landfill design. These included papers on predicting preterm birth, on bone remodeling and chemo-mechanical modeling of cartilage, on modeling Wnt signaling pathways in cells, about explaining and developing models of tendon damage and repair, and oxygen transport in the kidney and fluid flow in the eye, among others. My exploration of physiology and the origins of disease states was, of course, enabled by many wonderful colleagues and students, to whom I am grateful.

Where to from here?

I do believe that theoretical biology will become the primary driver for experimental biology at some time. I hold to the notion that many new discoveries could have been uncovered using reasoning alone, provided that the reasoning is disciplined by what is known at the present time.

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