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Sean M. Smith

Career Development

What field in Neuroscience did you study? What about the research process did you enjoy?

I studied Neuroendocrinology and Neurophysiology in the laboratory of Dr. Victor D. Ramirez.  My parent department was Molecular and Integrative Physiology.

Did you choose to continue doing research? Why or why not?

I enjoyed generating data in the lab.  It is very exciting to see the result of an experiment first hand.  I also think brainstorming about the meaning of results and learning how to focus future experiments on the most important question is an important skill to learn in graduate training.

Do you still conduct research or has your career taken you other places? Why is that?

I continued my research after UIUC at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, CA.  I worked in the Neuroendocrinology area in the laboratory of Dr. Wylie Vale.  In collaboration with his advisor and mentor Roger Guillemin, Dr. Vale contributed to the discovery, isolation, and identification of thyrotropin-releasing hormone and gonadotropin-releasing hormone in the 1970s; work that led to the Nobel Prize for Guillemin.


Has your career path changed since you have graduated? Why or why not?

I am now an Executive Director of Neuroscience Discovery at Merck.  I guide research for a large department of scientists developing therapeutics for neurodegenerative and psychiatric diseases.  This is a very challenging and exciting job.  We take basic concepts in neuroscience and attempt to turn them into drugs to treat patients.

What are some things you’ve been involved in since you graduated from the program?

I have been fortunate enough in my career to work on several drug discovery programs that have progressed to clinical trials to treat patients.  It is an amazing feeling to see how your science can help treat devastating diseases.

What is one major change that happened since graduation that you did not expect?

One major change since graduation was moving to Southern California then heading back to the East Coast.  I did not expect to make it back east after living in San Diego for several years.


How has your personal life developed since you graduated?

I am married (Jamie) and have two young boys (Derek and Evan).

How would you say you’ve changed since graduating?

I have become a much more compassionate person.  I think it is a mix of being a dad and seeing patients with significant health issues in my job.  I try to stay away from politics as much as possible.


What’s a fond memory you have as a graduate student?

I enjoyed working with my fellow graduate students in the lab and playing basketball at IMPE.

As a graduate student, was there anything you did that stood out to you or that you have fond memories of doing?

Several of us in the Neuroscience program use to play pool and eat pizza at Jupiter’s in downtown Champaign.  We would also see bands at the Blind Pig.  I enjoyed the freedom of just being focused on my science, no other care in the world when I was a graduate student.

What legacy do you hope to leave behind?

As for legacy, I believe we have a real shot to change the course of Schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease with the novel therapeutics we are developing at Merck.  It would be amazing to truly impact patient’s lives with my work.