Whimsical bench celebrates pioneer in autism research

Jun. 30, 2021

Tristram Smith, Ph.D., a pioneer in Autism research, was memorialized at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), during a ceremony and bench dedication. Smith was revered for the development of behavioral interventions that changed the landscape of care for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Smith died suddenly after suffering a heart attack in 2018.

“He was a true scientist and every new finding simply lead to another question and another finding,” said Leona Oakes, Ph.D., senior instructor in Neuroscience and Pediatrics who worked as a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow in Smith’s lab. “He always worked with such modesty and perseverance that only the hallowed whispers of others when they spoke of him revealed his greatness. He demonstrated his commitment to his work by simply living it, always with remarkable humility.”

Smith’s work and dedication is credited, in part, with URMC’s recent designation as an Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “He was the rudder, the guide in our effort,” said John Foxe, Ph.D., Director of the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience, at Wednesday’s ceremony. “It happened because of Tris and because of many people here. And that’s a piece of his legacy.”

From left: artist Paul Knoblauch stands with the family of Tristram Smith, Ph.D.

The whimsical bench, commissioned by Rochester artist Paul Knoblauch, sits outside the University of Rochester Center for Advanced Brain Imaging and Neurophysiology, at the Annex on Elmwood Avenue. A fitting location, as much of the research done in the building is dedicated to advancing our understanding of intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism. “He would be very proud of this bench, it’s charming and delightful. It is also colorful and creative,” said Smith’s wife Jenny Katz, Ph.D. “He was young at heart. Truly, the bench is perfect.”

Smith’s initials adorn the bench that will continue to be a reminder of his legacy ­– the lasting impact of his research, mentorship, and aim to serve as inspiration to future generations of investigators. “This bench, at the entrance to where students of many disciplines enter URMC, is a very fitting spot to memorialize Tris’s passion for mentoring trainees,” said Susan Hyman, M.D., of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. “Tris modeled kindness and gentleness in an academic setting through active listening and synthesizing discussion into something far more cogent than the sum of its parts. This was all done with humor and humility.”