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Betsy Towner Levine
Katrina Hoyer, Biochemistry '96 and Shane Smith, Biochemistry '97
Katrina Hoyer and Shane Smith never met at UC Davis despite taking many of the same biochem courses. Problem was, they were one year apart in school.
Today married and the parents of a two-year-old daughter, the couple wouldn’t cross paths until their first day of graduate school at UCLA. There, Smith fell for the biologist next door. “At first we worked in different labs at UCLA, but then wouldn’t you know it, her lab moved right next door to mine,” Smith said.
As the two completed graduate school, they realized that they were interested in different types of scientific work. In fact, Hoyer and Smith embody two ends of the spectrum of possible life science careers: one is a professor, the other a life-sciences patent litigator.
Hoyer took the more traditional route, working to become a professor of immunology. After UCLA she landed a postdoctoral fellowship at UCSF with renowned immunologist Dr. Abul Abbas, who has authored seminal textbooks in the discipline. She trained under Abbas for several years, then developed an independent research program to study immune dysregulation. Hoyer joined the faculty of the UC Merced Molecular Cell Biology group in July 2012, where she runs a lab that focuses on immune tolerance mechanisms and autoimmune disease.
“Being a professor fits my personality very well,” Hoyer says. “I am an example of someone who works hard and keeps walking the path, putting one foot in front of the other, and is able to achieve her goals. Scientists today need to put in really hard work, get a little bit lucky and be smart about the scientific questions that they ask.”
Hoyer herself learned to formulate smart questions through undergraduate laboratory experience at UC Davis. She was planning to attend medical school until landing an undergraduate research position in Dr. Stuart Soeldner’s diabetes research lab at the UC Davis Medical Center.
“Dr. Soeldner did a fantastic job introducing me to scientific publications, teaching me to ask the right questions and form hypotheses in the lab. He really shifted my thinking as to what I wanted to do with the rest of my scientific career, leading me to consider graduate school and research over medical school,” Hoyer said.
“I strongly recommend and encourage all undergraduates at Davis to gain lab experience. For any direction you want to go with your science degree, it’s invaluable to know what bench work is like.”
One of Hoyer’s favorite parts of her job is being able to serve as a mentor herself.
“I love the small-group mentoring that you do in the lab — from the undergrads and technicians, to grad students and post-docs — teaching there plays such an important role in the process of prepping the next generation of scientists,” Hoyer said.
Lab experience was formative for Smith’s career, also, although he took a very different path from Hoyer. Smith is a life-sciences patent litigator at McDermott Will and Emery LLP; he is the lawyer on the team who has a deep understanding of cell and molecular biology and can apply the law in scientifically defensible ways to advance his clients’ cases. Smith works primarily on patent litigation involving life sciences and pharmaceutical companies.
“I serve as a bridge between law and science,” Smith said. “If we have a client who has a vaccine formulation, we need a lawyer on the team who understands how the vaccine works, both at its molecular level and in its application in the body. “As that person, I can better draft a briefing for the court to explain the technology, work with experts, and better communicate the facts in the case.”
The 1997 biochemistry graduate also had a formative out-of-lab experience at the end of his undergraduate career when he earned the honor of being the student commencement speaker at his graduation ceremony. In preparing his speech, the mentorship of an associate dean and the UC Davis communications staff helped him get ready for the big day.
“At that point in my life I had developed exemplary writing skills but was still rough around the edges when it came to presentation, so UC Davis people spent a lot of time helping me craft my message,” Smith said. “Then, when 10,000 people including my mom and dad heard me speak, and all the grads shouted hurrah at the end, it was an unbelievable feeling—and not a lot of people get to do that at 22.”
After earning his Ph.D. at UCLA, Smith realized that he wanted to work in the sciences, but out amongst people where he could advocate for it in different ways. He served as a science advisor and spokesperson for the campaign to pass California’s Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative in 2003-2004, and then spent nearly three years as a communications consultant focused on science issues.
But his 1997 experience as commencement speaker had stayed with him. Smith realized that he would like to dust off an old idea—law school—and do persuasive speaking before the court. “My career is a combination of persuasive writing, oral advocacy and scientific technology,” Smith said. “I get to be around science and scientists, but in an extroverted and adversarial fashion.”
Smith and Hoyer both credit their UC Davis undergraduate education and laboratory experience with giving them an edge in their early careers. “People are aware of the quality of bioscience at UC Davis, and they know that the school prepares young scientists to work in industry and be at the bench,” Hoyer said. “I got my first job in large part because I was a UC Davis alum.”
To thank the College and help continue its legacy of educating top-notch young scientists, Hoyer and Smith are establishing an endowed scholarship to support undergraduate research. “We are very happy to be able to do our part,” Smith said. Looking ahead about 15 years, do these two scientists foresee their daughter, Selina, following the family business, perhaps even working in a UC Davis lab herself?
“We do think she’s brilliant,” Hoyer joked. “I’ve already started teaching her about viruses and bacteria when she gets a cold. She knows they get in her nose.”