Sulfur mustard expert retires from USAMRICD
As he retires after 29 years of federal service at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., Dr. William J. Smith will be remembered not only for his scientific expertise and research achievements, but also for his leadership and his contributions to the Institute's business processes.
"Dr. Smith leaves behind an incredible legacy," said Col. Bruce Schoneboom, USAMRICD commander. "With his institutional knowledge and memory, he has been a great advisor for me since my arrival two months ago."
Smith served the Institute in many different roles during his long career, as principal investigator, branch chief, and division chief. As additional duties, Smith was the research coordinator for the vesicant agents program, later the program advisor for cutaneous and ocular therapeutics, and more recently the coordinator for emerging threats. He established the first Good Laboratory Practices subcommittee of the Institute's Executive Council and also served as chair of the Non-Traditional Agent Safety Committee.
In 2009, the MRICD revamped its senior scientific leadership position to include changing the position title from scientific advisor to deputy to the commander for research, and Smith became acting DCR until the hiring action was completed in 2011. As such, Smith helped contextualize the position's responsibilities in the management of the Institute's research portfolio.
"Bill took the DCR position for a dry run and helped make the position into what it is today," said Dr. John Graham, the current DCR. "Additionally, he was directly responsible for getting MRICD's Program Board of Advisors going during a time of great change. He had the foresight to see that teaming would become a requirement for doing business, and he strove to put that change in working environment into motion here at the Institute."
Smith's career at the USAMRICD began in 1968 following receipt of his bachelor's degree, when he accepted a position as a biologist with the Biomedical Laboratories at Edgewood Arsenal, the predecessor lab to MRICD. He left federal service in 1972 to work in the pharmaceutical/diagnostics industry and then sat on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. During these 15 years, he earned a master's degree in biology and a doctorate in biochemistry. He returned to the MRICD in 1987 in an Intergovernmental Personnel Act assignment and was hired as a research biologist in November 1988.
Smith brought with him an extensive knowledge of tissue cultures and of the new technique of flow cytometry, according to longtime friend and collaborator Clark Gross. Most of his laboratory research was conducted using in vitro cell and tissue models derived from human tissue. Smith's laboratory was the first to establish the human epidermal keratinocyte as the predominant cellular model for studying mechanisms of vesication and cell death in vitro. His research has helped maintain the USAMRICD's position as a leading Department of Defense laboratory in the field of alternative methods to animal use in toxicological research.
Smith's primary research focus at the USAMRICD was the toxic mechanisms of sulfur mustard and the development of medical countermeasures against mustard's vesicating properties in human skin, eye and lung. His many scientific contributions in the study of chemical warfare agent exposures led to advancements not only in understanding the effects of these agents, and even in physiology in general, but also in protecting the warfighter from injury. Additionally, these have garnered him international recognition as a respected scientist foremost in the field of CWA-induced pathologies.
"As the mustard guru, Bill paved the way for most of the advances made in the field," said Graham. "His personal research efforts as well as his leadership of other scientists in their efforts resulted in a better understanding of the toxic effects of mustard as well as in getting us closer to an effective countermeasure."
Smith's research resulted in 88 peer-reviewed open literature scientific articles, 120 government-sponsored meeting publications, and 80 published scientific abstracts; he has been an invited speaker or served as a scientific session chair on 30 occasions. His international recognition resulted in his being an invited speaker at 15 international toxicology meetings and chair of 26 international symposia sessions on mustard vesication.
Additionally, Smith is a member of multiple international scientific societies, such as the American Society for Cell Biology, the Society of Toxicology and the Society for In Vitro Biology. He served as president of the latter society from 2010 to 2012. He has also served on curriculum committees for the local community college and on dissertation committees at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. He has been a reviewer for more than eight scientific journals, and a member of Source Selection Panels for the USAMRICD and the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, as well as an Integrated Process Team member for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology.
Another hallmark of Smith's career has been his mentorship of students and junior scientists. He has worked with all levels of the Institute's scientific staff, and his lab was a training ground for 21 high school students under George Washington University's Science and Engineering Apprentice Program, and for 23 post-baccalaureate student interns. He also was involved with the initiation of the Institute's Blood Borne Pathogens course, which he taught for more than a decade.
At a retirement luncheon honoring Smith, Stephanie Russell, a former student who is now an Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Engineering intern at the USAMRICD, spoke on behalf of all of the students who went through Smith's lab, and she thanked him for being such a caring and encouraging mentor. She described Smith as someone who "continues to strive to learn" and is "always willing to impart knowledge." He "demonstrated excellence" as a scientist, but also advocated the importance of balancing one's career and personal life.
"You are a great example of the scientist I want to be," Russell said to Smith.
Smith credits the members of his research team for all of the successes in his career.
"I never had a greater mission in my life than to work for the warfighter and the nation in the chem-bio defense program," said Smith.
In his retirement, Smith's "mission" will shift from protecting the warfighter to helping individuals in the local community through several charitable initiatives sponsored by his church and supporting a number of independent non-profit organizations.