June 2000

No 114

Election to Fellowship of the Royal Society is pinnacle of achievement

University of Leicester biologist Professor Harry Smith has received the supreme scientific accolade awarded by one of the most venerable institutions in the world, The Royal Society.

He was elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society the UK national academy for science - on May 11, joining an elite group of distinguished scientists. The Royal Society currently has 1,218 Fellows (FRS), elected from scientists from the UK and Commonwealth, plus 111 Foreign Members elected from other countries.

Professor Smith, Professor of Botany at the University of Leicester since 1978, was among 42 people to be elected to the Society, founded in 1660. He said: I am absolutely delighted that my lifetime's work in plant biology has been recognised by my peers in this country.

It is a tremendous accolade for me and it will also help to raise the profile of the department and the University of Leicester. Leicester has provided me with excellent facilities for my research they are second to none and, indeed, my work could not have been done anywhere else in the world. I have been fortunate to have worked with many talented and energetic colleagues, and students, post-docs and technicians indeed without the undying efforts of the Leicester technical staff, much of my work would not have been possible.

Professor Smith added that his election provided further recognition to the worldwide efforts being made to improve plant science: Plant biology is currently under challenge from many quarters, but globally the science is making amazing new discoveries which have the potential to benefit the whole of mankind. I have enjoyed playing a part in that endeavour for the past thirty years.

Professor Smith's work has focused on the main photosensory mechanism by which plants respond to the light environment. This has led to the concepts of 'proximity perception', 'neighbour detection' and 'shade avoidance' that are fundamental to gaining an understanding of plant-plant interactions.

A graduate of Manchester University, Professor Smith became a research student in the laboratory of the eminent plant physiologist Philip Wareing at Aberystwyth. He completed his PhD on the perception of gravity by woody species, where he developed a career-long fascination for the exceptional capacity of plants to detect and respond to environmental signals.

In particular, Professor Smith's laboratory carried out pioneering work on the role of the phytochrome system in the competition for light that occurs among plants in crowded communities. A major interest has been the 'shade avoidance syndrome', the process by which plants respond to crowding (actual or impending) by increasing stem growth at the expense of productive, storage and reproductive structures such as leaves, fruits and tubers.

The ecological importance of shade avoidance is immense, enabling plants to place their leaves into unfiltered daylight and to compete successfully with their neighbours. In a series of now classical experiments, the Smith group demonstrated the reasons for 'plant behaviour' and examined the agricultural implications of shade avoidance. Crop plants display shade avoidance and so waste much resource in stem elongation to the detriment of harvestable yield. Suppression of shade avoidance would lead to bigger yields and more food for the world.

Professor Smith, who retires this year, believes there is plenty of potential for his work to continue and yield real benefits. He hopes to remain scientifically active whilst he is able, but he intends to spend more time on his three-acre garden and his 'cottage industry' of science publishing. He is the founding editor of Plant, Cell and Environment, and managing editor of Molecular Ecology and Global Change Biology, all successful research journals published by Blackwell Science of Oxford.

Married to Elinor for 40 years next year, they have three children and six grandchildren. He also has a passion for classic motor cars.

Professor Garry Whitelam, Head of the Department of Biology, said: The award of Fellowship of the Royal Society represents a richly deserved recognition of Harry's outstanding achievements in science. It also continues a very fine tradition of botanists at the University of Leicester being elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society.

Note to Newsdesk: For more information, please contact the Biology Department on 0116 252 3381.

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Last updated: 08 June 2000 14:52
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