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Movers And Shakers

David Smith builds self-assembling nanogels for regenerative medicine

This supramolecular chemist’s personal experience drives him to build scaffolds for tissue engineering

by Payal Dhar, special to C&EN
April 8, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 12

A photo of David Smith.
Credit: Watsamon June Tri-yasakda
David Smith

For David Smith, a professor of chemistry at the University of York, the personal, political, and professional are inextricably interwoven. As an out gay man leading a team of student researchers, Smith knows that visibility is critical to diversity. If you can’t be authentic about who you are, you thrive less at work, he says, which is not conducive to belonging in the workplace or to good science.


Hometown: Manchester, England

Education: BA, 1993, and DPhil, 1996, University of Oxford

Current position: Professor of chemistry, University of York

LGBTQ+ identity: Gay man

Favorite element: Nitrogen—I love that this most inert of elements, once incorporated into molecules, often gives them much of their character in terms of reactivity and noncovalent interactions. It has been an ever-present element throughout my career, and the way its initially conventional exterior hides deeper secrets really speaks to me.

Go-to stress reliever: Cooking. Not only is it like those practical skills I used to employ in the lab, only with tastier end results, it’s a kind of therapy for me. Also my son is at his most settled and happy when he sees me busy in the kitchen, cooking something (hopefully) delicious to eat.

Smith works with self-assembling nanogels that can be used for drug delivery, tissue engineering, and environmental remediation. “We develop gels that assemble from small-molecule building blocks,” he says. Using chemistry, his team programs these gels to be dynamic, so they respond over time or change in response to stimuli. For example, his group made a gel that can pull precious metals out of electronic waste and become a conductive material.

His team also shapes and patterns gels in water to direct the growth of different kinds of tissues, like bones and nerves, from stem cells. “The next stage will be to bring them all together into a single material,” Smith says, “where a particular region of the material stimulates bone and another region stimulates nerves and maybe something else connects them together.” That way, one day they could perhaps build a whole new organ to be transplanted into a patient.

Smith has a personal connection to his work in regenerative medicine. His husband, Sam, had cystic fibrosis and died when his body rejected a lung transplant—a common problem with the procedure. “If you could generate an organ from a patient’s own stem cells, then they wouldn’t have to wait for a donor,” Smith says, “and they wouldn’t reject the organ because it would be grown from their own cells.”

Smith’s work blends biology, chemistry, and engineering. His research team includes people with backgrounds in chemistry, pharmacy, and biology. But he doesn’t just support scientific diversity—Smith is also an advocate for LGBTQ+ people in science, and he is on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Inclusion and Diversity Committee. His advocacy began in 2005 when a student at the University of York went to the head of the Chemistry Department to report that there was homophobic gossip about Smith, who wasn’t out at work at the time. The department head didn’t know how to broach the subject, and “ultimately, it convinced me that it was worth being out and being more vocal about things,” Smith says.

Years later, Smith’s openness had a direct impact on Charlie Wand, a trans man who is now a lecturer in natural sciences at the University of Exeter. He did his PhD at the University of York because he knew about Smith and his efforts at inclusion. “I’m sure that Dave Smith probably doesn’t remember who I am,” Wand says, “but I certainly knew who he was before I started. And the fact that he was out and there and succeeding was definitely a good plus point for going to York.”

I’m very interested in how we make culture change in science in a whole range of ways.

Similarly, Kirsty Ross, a scientist who works at the University of Strathclyde as an outreach officer supporting researchers in their public engagement activities, was inspired by listening to David Smith speaking at an equality, diversity, and inclusion initiative for UK universities. Ross, who is bisexual, says that seeing how Smith interweaves his identities as a gay man, father, husband, and researcher made her think there was more she could do to support others. “I decided after that session to become more visible, more vocal, more out there in terms of my identity,” she says.

Smith, a single dad to a 9-year-old, has been advocating for flexible working arrangements for scientists. He is also the author of Tw-eat Together, a collection of Twitter-style recipes along with stories of his adventures in cooking with Sam. Plus, he is a proficient tweeter. He says he finds Twitter to be “useful for speaking about all aspects of equality and diversity in science and in the workplace.” He posts about politics, food, and the culture of science as well. “I’m very interested in how we make culture change in science in a whole range of ways.”

He wishes that scientists would also listen to lived experiences as much as they are swayed by data. Smith says that when he does outreach education for schools, he talks about how Sam motivated his lab’s work on tissue engineering. “I think it’s a really nice way of demystifying that there’s been all these gay scientists, and in some cases, they’ve actually investigated science that is relevant to gay people as well.”



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