Photo Credit: Dave Smith
A lecturer at the University of York’s Department of Chemistry has raised over £12 000 for charity in a fundraiser memorialising his husband, Sam Smith, who passed away earlier this month. Professor Dave Smith has spent much of his academic life working on groundbreaking stem cell research owing to his husband’s diagnosis with cystic fibrosis. This study represents a fusion of academic and personal life. Speaking to Nouse, Dave said that he believes this approach is “beneficial for science in general.”
The idea for the fundraiser originally came from Sam, who asked that donations at his funeral be given to the wards that supported him during his period of illness: the cystic fibrosis ward at St James’ Hospital in Leeds and the transplant unit at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle.
Cystic fibrosis patients often spend extended periods of time in hospital, so Sam’s aim was to make the lives of patients and relatives better. The fundraiser aims to provide entertainment and comfort to those who must spend longer under the care of professionals on the wards. The fundraiser arose when people commented after the funeral that they wanted to do something, and has since clearly touched a chord with generous donors both in the University
community, on Twitter, and beyond. Dave says that his only regret is that “I only wish I could tell Sam just how amazing it has been.”
Sam’s life story is, in itself, miraculous. Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at a young age, he was not expected to live past his teenage years. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition that causes the build-up of mucus in the lungs and digestive system, which become increasingly damaged over time, leading to a decreased lifespan without proper medication and other treatment including physical activity and airway clearing. Cystic fibrosis patients can develop further issues beyond the respiratory system, including diabetes, osteoporosis, liver and fertility problems. The disease can alter a person’s daily routine completely as well, restricting important activities like travel and work.
Sam constantly overcame these boundaries and lived well into his 30s. He entered into a civil partnership with Dave in 2010, and in 2011 received a life-changing double lung transplant. The lung transplant gave Sam a new lease on life and the couple adopted a son in 2014. Unfortunately, Sam experienced organ rejection in 2019. As a man who “used every minute of his life”, travelling to America, Morocco, Australia, Iceland, Spain, and Disneyland among others, it was his “dying wish” that he be able to better the lives of those living with the same disease.
Dave Smith has pursued this goal for years at York. In 2005, he switched his focus of study towards gene therapy research that might benefit the lives of those living with his husband’s disease. Professor Smith’s focus is on the question of facilitating growth and differentiation of stem cells. In the Chemistry department, he contributes to research on smart materials that facilitate the growth of stem cells. These stem cells can then be used to produce healthy organs on demand for those in need of a transplant. Throughout the research programme, Smith has developed a number of new concepts, among them, ‘self-assembled multivalency’ (SAMul), named after his husband.
The outpouring of support from the York community following a difficult time for a popular departmental lecturer has been self-evident. The fundraising page has individual donations from just under 500 supporters. One message reads “best wishes from one of many who have been hugely touched by Dave and Sam’s remarkable family.” Dave is a well-loved teacher in the Chemistry department, and several students have also made donations. Another message read: “I will never forget you sharing Sam’s story in a first year lecture.” A grateful Chemistry third year told Nouse that Dave is “an excellent lecturer and a genuinely amazing person and I am happy to see so much support for him in such a trying time.”
Dave is keen to share his husband’s experience with the disease in the hope that it might inspire interest in the challenges faced by cystic fibrosis patients. Among them, ‘access to the very newest drugs here in the UK.’ Cystic fibrosis patients face many barriers in terms of accessing life-saving or life-extending medication due to a combination of careful drug legislation and unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies.
On the 07 March, campaigners will demonstrate in Parliament Square to persuade the government to review access and pricing of life-saving drugs that are hard to obtain in Britain. Among the other issues Dave has highlighted is the “benefits of transplantation,” without which “Sam’s last eight years would not have happened at all.” Transplantation is a controversial topic for cystic fibrosis patients considering the sizeable risks associated with rejection and complications such as infection.
Sharing his experience on social media platforms, and openly in the interview, it is clear Dave is keen that academics learn from his personalised approach to his study. There are two main benefits to the approach. The first is that by bringing practical experience to scientific questions, Dave is “beginning to approach systems with real world application.” The second is the benefit regarding the public perception of scientists. Dave believes that by not sharing personal stories, “scientists can sometimes seem disconnected from the ‘real world’... and by talking about personal things and scientists being people, this is beneficial for science in general.”
The fundraising campaign is ongoing, and Nouse would like to encourage anyone touched by Sam and Dave’s story to donate to the JustGiving page at: tinyurl.com/samsmithfundraiser.