Amy Smith is the first woman to win the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness. “Problem solving has always been in my blood,” she says. “I’m the kind of person who will walk into a restroom, see a broken sink and fix it instead of complaining that someone else should do it.”
The 37-year-old mechanical engineer won the award for developing a half-dozen inventions designed to help people in Third World countries, including a mill that converts grain into flour ten times faster than it takes to do the job by hand, and a phase-change incubator that tests for bacteria in water supplies.
She also developed a kitchen appliance called Smart Canister. Say you want to make brownies. Press a button, and all the ingredients shake into a bowl.
“I love mechanical engineering design, and to be able to do it in a way that is useful is a really wonderful thing,” she says.
Smith plans to use the prize money to develop her inventions and to start a company based on redesigning medical devices for developing countries. The focus of the company is the phase-change incubator, a cheap, easy-to-operate device that needs no electricity. Aside from testing for water impurities, it may also make it possible for health care workers to identify the right antibiotic to treat infections.
Smith, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s from MIT in ’84 and ’95, first developed an interest in helping others when she was 11. Raised in an affluent Boston suburb, for seven years she gave half her babysitting money to UNICEF.
“When I realized some children didn’t have enough to eat, I thought, that’s not fair. I had this glass jar filled with money in my bottom drawer. Every year I’d take it out and send off a check.”
After graduating from MIT, Smith took a part-time design job. She also volunteered at a soup kitchen, coached the Special Olympics, tutored inner-city high school students, and worked at a food bank.
“I’ve always done community service. If you can, why not?” says Smith, who last year went to Romania to build houses for Habitat for Humanity. “I didn’t do much community service as an MIT student, and I missed it. I focused only on work and athletics and felt I’d been too busy to care.”
So two years out of MIT, Smith joined the U.S. Peace Corps, where she spent four years working in the Kalahari Desert. First she taught junior high school science, English, and math, then served as a bee-keeping officer where she trained farmers. In 1988 in Botswana she was named the Peace Corps Volunteer of the Year. She later won the JFK Volunteer of the Year Award in Africa, where she represented 2,500 volunteers.
Smith says serving in the Peace Corps transformed her life. “I had some pretty grandiose ideas when I went. I learned I can’t save the world, but I can do what I can do.
“It’s clear that the algebra I taught kids there isn’t going to change the whole world. But the fact that the students knew I cared about them made it possible for many of them to continue their educations.”
Smith says that serving in Africa awakened her to the fact that people matter most in life.
“In the Peace Corps, the people are your social life. You don’t go to movies. You don’t go to concerts. You go to people’s houses and you talk to them. The big thing I learned is that people are the most important thing in the world.”
While she was serving in Africa, her mother died. “It affects your life in a huge way. It made me realize you must do what you can to help people. You never know when it will be too late,” says Smith, adding that it was her mother who taught her that if you see a problem, do something about it.
Perhaps Smith’s interest in the developing world goes back to the year she spent in Northwest India when she was six, when her father, Arthur Smith, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science, taught in a school there.
Smith, who had been studying at MIT for a second master’s when she won the award, has decided instead to teach engineering design at MIT’s Edgerton Center. She says one goal is to return to Africa to conduct field testing of her grain mill. She also plans to test the phase-change incubator in Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa.
“There’s definitely times when I say, my Mom would be glad I’m doing this. In part, I do this for her. I’m an extremely fortunate person to earn my living doing work I’m happy to do.”