LEADERS IN HEALTHCARE: Steven R. Smith, MD, Florida Hospital-Burnham Clinical Research Institute
Low-key and reserved, Steven Smith largely went unnoticed in his high school class of 700. His college pals knew him as the guy who ran the roller coasters at Six Flags over Texas. And once headed for pharmacy school, he only took the MCAT on a dare from a friend.
"Next thing, I was in medical school," joked Smith, MD, an internationally-renowned diabetes and obesity researcher who began the new post of executive director of the Florida Hospital-Burnham Clinical Research Institute (CRI) in August, where his work bridges the gap between cell/molecular biology and clinical care. Healthcare and community leaders heralded his leadership role as another giant step advancing Orlando as a hub for medical research.
"Under the leadership of Dr. Smith, we'll be working together to conduct translational research, which aims to form a bridge between the research lab and bedside care," said Daniel Kelly, MD, scientific director of Burnham Institute for Medical Research at Lake Nona. "This means while Florida Hospital will be working directly with the patients, Burnham scientists will be studying how and why disease processes vary by individuals in the lab."
At the same time Smith's job was announced, Florida Hospital and Burnham Institute officials unveiled another milestone: the construction of a new building to house the CRI, bringing scientists, clinicians and the procedures necessary to facilitate clinical research under one roof and honoring the state's mission to promote biomedical sciences. The proposed state-of-the-art, 35,000-square-foot building will be located on Princeton Street and will serve as the gateway to Florida Hospital's Health Village, which is the area being developed around Florida Hospital Orlando for medical space, residential areas, and retail. The two-year project should begin with a groundbreaking event during the first quarter of 2010.
"With this partnership, we hope to change how diabetes and obesity research is conducted," said Smith. "This new institute will help break down the distance that exists between research and the clinic and help make it possible to deliver results faster and on a personalized level."
Smith was born at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, the third son of Richard and his wife, Shirley. Baylor would play an important role twice more in his life, first as the site of his internal medicine residency program, and second as the place where he met his wife, Joffa Braymer, MD.
"My father was an engineer at a TV station back in the days of vacuum tubes," recalled Smith, "and taught me electronics at the kitchen table. We built radios from scratch and repaired TVs. I'm convinced this influenced my professional interest in imaging, and the wide variety of tools I use in my research program."
As a fifth-grader, Smith participated in a special reading group led by Nancy Mitchell, a young and very enthusiastic teacher. "I learned to read the newspaper every day and became a voracious reader," he said. "She inspired all of us to reach a little higher."
To stretch a shoestring budget while in college, Smith worked at Six Flags in the rides department. By the age of 19, he was a supervisor, an experience that taught him how to build and manage teams of people. "It really does take a village to get big tasks done," he said.
With some prodding from his dad to choose a career that he loved, Smith discovered that chemistry and biology were always his favorite classes, so medical school seemed a natural fit. Yet it was taking the MCAT on a dare that led him to the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, where he earned a medical degree in 1988.
After wrapping up residency at Baylor in 1991, he completed a two-year fellowship in clinical endocrinology and metabolism at the Ochsner Clinic and Hospital in New Orleans, La. For 15 years before joining Florida Hospital, he was a faculty member at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La.
"I did a research project as part of an honors thesis in college (the University of Texas at Arlington), worked in a hypertension pharmacology lab doing research during my summers in medical school in San Antonio, and when I finished my endocrine fellowship, one thing led to another and I moved into doing clinical research full time," he said. "It's a hard road and takes lots of planning, but when the results of a two- or three-year study come out, it's worth every minute."
Early in his career, he learned to tune out the naysayers and charge ahead. "Professionally, it's easy to fall in the trap of 'I can't do that' if you aren't trained or educated in a particular field," he said. "People always put you in a box. My best discoveries were projects everyone said would fail but I went ahead and did them anyway."
Smith's front-burner project has involved understanding how body weight and metabolism are controlled.
"Why can some people burn fat calories and others cannot? That's a fundamental problem we're working on. If we can get a grip on this, we should be able to help people burn fat and lose weight. Losing just 5 to 10 percent of body weight has a big impact on health and glucose control in type 2 diabetes."
He's also working on a concept of personalized medicine in obesity, diabetes and the metabolic disorders that lead to cardiovascular diseases.
"We know that people become obese and get diabetes for probably dozens of different reasons," Smith said. "We're working to use the power of the human genome project and some exciting new technologies to develop diagnostic tools that will allow us to tailor treatments to the individual. A big motivation for my move to Orlando was to work on this idea. It dovetails nicely with the Florida Hospitals' emphasis on the whole person."
Smith has been busy adjusting to Florida life (he pointed out that Texas has "dry heat") with his wife, Joffa, a radiologist and runner; their daughter Arden, 14, a student at Winter Park High who rides her horse, Athena, at every opportunity; and son Mitchell, 12, a student at Lake Highland. Mitchell is following his dad's footsteps in one shared area of passion: becoming a gizmo geek, joked Smith, who often walks the family dog, Zeus. "Zeus, our chocolate Labrador, was found on the side of the road after Katrina," he explained. "We interviewed him and he's been a part of the family ever since."
He's also indulged his Julia Child talents: "I love to cook; barbecue, grill, sauté, whatever," he said. "I've been known to go to the refrigerator or grocery and wing it with great results. Everything is allowed but not baking. I hate to measure and often combine two or three recipes on the fly!"
His new hometown has brought out a long-neglected interest. "I sailed a little with my brother when I was in high school and have always wanted to learn more and get back out on the water," he said. "I think we moved to the right place to get back on the sailboat."