As a child in England in the 1930s, Oliver Smithies found his path before he knew that "science" was its name. "I remember, as a six- or seven-year-old, fairly clearly, that I wanted to be an inventor," says Smithies, who is Excellence Professor of Pathology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "In a sense, that's what I've been ever since. I've invented various methods of doing things."

In 1950, Smithies invented starch-gel electrophoresis, enabling easy protein separation. Decades later, he accomplished the first gene targeting, allowing the precise insertion of genes into mammalian cells. That contribution, which he shares with Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah, influenced the creation of knockout mouse models of diseases, from cystic fibrosis to atherosclerosis.

Now in his early 80s, this...

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