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Ernsting Award: Thomas Smith

September 03, 2021

Ernsting Award: Thomas Smith

Established and sponsored by Environmental Tectonics Corporation in memory of Professor Ernsting. It is given for outstanding research in altitude physiology, and/or longstanding exceptional performance in the education, development, and administration of Aerospace Medicine and related specialties.

Thomas G. Smith, M.B.B.S., D.Av.Med., D.Phil., FRCA, FAsMA, is the 2021 recipient of the John Ernsting Award. Dr. Smith is a physiologist and anesthetist, expert in cardiopulmonary and hypoxia physiology with a particular interest in aerospace medicine and physiology who founded the Aerospace Medicine Research Group at the University of Oxford. As an educator he has directed the internationally unique M.Sc. in Space Physiology and Health run in colla boration with ESA. He is currently Head of Aerospace Medicine Research, King’s College London, and a Consultant Anaesthetist, Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK.
   Dr. Smith has extensive experience across a wide variety of respiratory physiology research studies. Through his experiments in healthy volunteers and patients, his work has provided evidence that the transcription factor hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF), which coordinates cellular responses to hypoxia, also plays a major role in regulating the cardiopulmonary organ systems upon which cellular oxygen delivery ultimately depends. This includes an important link between HIF regulation and hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction in humans. This work has further established the existence of a novel and substantial interaction between iron, hypoxia, and the pulmonary circulation that is consistent with the known biochemical interaction between iron and HIF. These findings have introduced the possibility that iron could be an important factor in cardiopulmonary disease and in the aeromedical setting. Dr Smith conceived and led the first studies to use echocardiography on commercial airline flights. This included a series of studies exploring whether the mild hypoxia experienced during commercial air travel is sufficient to trigger hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction in humans. Using in-flight echocardiography, these studies established that pulmonary artery pressure increases in healthy passengers, and that this can develop into flight-induced pulmonary hypertension in a susceptible passenger.
   Dr. Smith obtained an M.B.B.S. from the University of Adelaide, Australia, in 2000 and an Australian Certificate of Civil Aviation Medicine from Monash University, Australia, in 2002. He then commenced training in anesthesia. In 2003 he undertook an aerospace medicine rotation at NASA under a Churchill Fellowship before moving to Oxford under a Rhodes Scholarship for his D.Phil. (Ph.D.) in cardiopulmonary physiology, which he earned in 2008. He subsequently established and led the University of Oxford’s aerospace medicine research group. In 2017 he was recruited by King’s College London to lead research in aerospace medicine and physiology and run their internationally renowned master’s degree in Space Physiology and Health, in collaboration with ESA’s European Astronaut Centre.
   Dr. Smith’s research has been published in high-impact journals such as JAMA and features in several textbooks. His 50 research publications have generated 1,300 citations in the scientific literature leading to new insights and research techniques in both aviation and space medicine. Dr. Smith is an Academician of the International Academy of Aviation and Space Medicine, and a Fellow of the Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA) and the Royal College of Anaesthetists. His honors include the Sir John Vane Award for Innovation in Pulmonary Vascular Research, the Ellingson Award for Published Research from AsMA’s Associate Fellows Group, and the President’s Prize for Research from the Australasian Society of Aerospace Medicine. He was selected to present on the ‘Ernsting Panel’ at the International Congress of Aviation and Space Medicine in 2015 and was chosen to give the John Lane Oration in Aerospace Medicine at the 2019 Annual Scientific Meeting of the Aviation Medicine Society of New Zealand. In 2019 Dr. Smith received AsMA’s Eric Liljencrantz Award.