You could say that Dr. Norman Smith was born into scientific research. Along with 5,000 other British children who entered the world in the first week of March 1946, he became a subject of the inaugural National Survey of Health and Development, one of the world's first major longitudinal cohort health studies.
"For the first 15 years of my life, I’d go annually to a local clinic where they checked my teeth, my general health -- a real thorough checkup," said Smith. "And unbelievably it still goes on to this day. I get a card every year from these professors that are doing all the statistical analysis."
Today, Smith does his own analysis, contributing to a research project that dwarfs the National Survey of Health and Development in size, scope, and ambition -- the UK's groundbreaking MRC-NIHR National Phenome Centre. Led by Imperial College London and Smith's institution, King's College London, the Centre is investigating human phenome patterns on an unprecedented scale, rapidly analyzing samples to help discover disease biomarkers and develop new treatments.
"The Centre is looking at analyzing about 500,000 samples a year," noted Smith. "These will either be blood or urine samples, looking for biomarkers. And of course, in these samples you’ve got this massive array of polarities. And as a result, there’s no one technique that’s really going to be able to solve all the problems. And it transpires that an awful lot of what they’re expecting to see are small polar analytes.”
The vast majority of samples are being analyzed using reversed-phase UPLC/MS, an appropriate technique for most purposes, but not optimum for small polar analytes due to their hydrophilic properties. That's where Norman Smith's special expertise comes in.
Smith's research work at King's College is focused on micro separations using gradient micro HPLC, UPLC, and Capillary ElectroChromatography (CEC), but he saw an opportunity to exploit another technology to support the work of the National Phenome Centre.
"We’re looking at the supercritical fluid chromatography (SFC) side of things using the Waters ACQUITY UPC2 system," he explained. "We’re hoping UPC2 is going to be more suitable for the small polar analytes."
Smith's group began that effort by screening the available stationary phases and soon found that many were not stable enough when using CO2 with modifiers.
"That was a massive setback, but Waters have come up with a second generation of phases, which we’ve evaluated, and two of them are looking really, really good for small polar analytes," said Smith. "So we’re moving full steam ahead now on a lot of these test probes that have already been run over at Imperial using UPLC and we’re hoping to get our first paper out on that very, very shortly."
Supported in his work by a post-doc student, Smith also devotes considerable time to helping Master of Science degree candidates at King's, where he has worked since 2002.
"We have an MSc course which is based on analytical science for industry and there’s a strong emphasis on hands-on experience, which is one of the big criticisms that industry throw at universities," he explained. "So we make a big effort to make sure that there’s a big hands-on component in their course."
That focus on preparing students for careers in industry is an appropriate one for Smith, who worked for more than three decades at the company now known as GlaxoSmithKline.
"I joined Glaxo Research as a 16-year-old kid," Smith recalled. "I’d come straight from school with O level exams. And they didn’t really ever take anybody on normally unless they had A levels. But they took me on and I just went through a long series of protracted part-time study. There were an awful lot of people at Glaxo at that time that followed the same route as me. And all of us without fail have said that we think it’s easily the best route. You learn so much more."
His first boss at Glaxo, Dr. Bart Taylor, was his greatest mentor.
"He had a massive influence on me," said Smith. "He was a very, very smart guy. And he taught me one hell of a lot, both about being a scientist and being a decent human being. I’m still in touch with him to this day."
While at Glaxo, Smith earned a chemistry degree from Kingston University London, then his doctorate at the University of Hertfordshire, where his thesis focused on "The Development of Novel Systems for High Resolution Capillary ElectroChromatography."
Had Norman Smith not gone into science, what career would he have pursued?
"I’ve often said that one of the best jobs in the UK must be to be a manager of a football team," he said. "Because they give them these silly contracts. Instead of having, say, a one-year rolling contract, they give them a five-year contract at 5 million pounds a year. And when they fail after one year, they sack them, but they have to pay the contract off. So it’s got to be one of the best jobs on earth. When I come back I’m going to be either a football player or a football manager or a rock star.”
An avid music-lover, Smith's all-time favorites are Motown artists, such as the Temptations, but he also listens to contemporary performers, such as Coldplay, Sam Smith, and Ed Sheeran.
However, his most avid pursuit is pushing the boundaries of analytical science -- an activity that has occupied him for decades.
"I was developing what has become UPLC long before Waters ever had any instruments or anything," he claimed. "And I really regret to this day never publishing my work. But I packed a 1-meter-long capillary with 3-micron material. And at that time I was working with a 15,000 psi pump which was long before Waters ever got involved in this. And I did some really, really good work on that."
These days, Smith is content to leave the pump-building to Waters.
"I’m really astounded by the reproducibility of that Waters pump," he said. "My students have done masses of repeat gradients over long periods and the reproducibility is really quite outstanding. This is at very, very high pressures.
You’d expect the performance to maybe drop off over, say, a 12-hour run or something. But they’re absolutely amazing."
For Smith, the National Phenome Centre work illustrates the value of developing ever-smaller internal diameter analytical columns.
"If you’re analyzing 500,000 samples a year and you’ve got a three-millimeter ID column, you’re running, say, at one mL a minute," he pointed out. "You’re using a colossal amount of solvents, which you have to pay to dispose of. If you can go down to 500-micron or whatever, anything below 2 millimeters, the savings are enormous. I think we’re going to see much more of1 mm i.d. columns."
As Norman Smith prepares to publish his first findings using UPC2 for small polar analytes, he still makes time to fulfill his role as a scientific subject with the nearly 70-year National Survey of Health and Development.
"Three years ago, they were given quite a significant amount of money by the government," said Smith. "And I went to the brand-new hospital at University College London and spent a day there. Here I went through every test known to man -- bone density checks, you name it. It was really, really thorough. And then they gave you all the results, some of which you didn’t want to get. And I had to then go to my doctor and say, 'Is this important? Is this important?' And all that. But they’ve gained an enormous amount of information from these studies."
With his work with the National Phenome Centre, Dr. Norman Smith is likely to produce an even greater amount of information of immeasurable value.