When I enter Professor Lee Smith’s office at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Reproductive Health, two things strike me: the stack of scientific papers on his desk and the mouse-shaped clock hanging from his wall.
‘It’s bespoke,’ he says, pointing to the latter. ‘You won’t see many of these about.’ Quite. The pendulum below it, swinging furiously from left to right, is designed to look like a pair of testicles. Not something you’d expect from the local Chair of Genetic Endocrinology, but, somehow, it fits.
Dr Smith, for all his myriad qualifications, is less boffin, more everyman – which is reassuring given that he holds our sperm in his hands – albeit metaphorically.
At just 39, Dr Smith – with the help of his team of scientists from Scotland, England, France, China and Taiwan – has found new scope for a male pill by safely blocking a vital gene called Katnal 1, which controls an early stage in semen development. “We work on the wider issue of male fertility and testosterone’s role in the body,” he says, framed by pictures of his two children. “But when we inadvertently found a faulty gene that made men infertile, we suddenly had the basis for a contraceptive.”
Dr Smith started his career at Oxford University during the late 1990s, where he worked on testes development and early sex determination – essentially, whether parents end up with a boy or a girl. Several years later, he was head-hunted for his current role in Scotland, where he now controls a £4.1 million grant from the Medical Research Council. Twenty-four months into his five-year tenure and he’s already pioneering knowledge where others failed.