Such work couldn’t be timelier. The 2006 report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons calls on MIT to help more students experience other parts of the world. D-Lab and the expanding menu of international-development projects sponsored by the Edgerton Center and the Public Service Center now make up one of three areas of international opportunity for MIT students. The other two–a classic study-abroad program and a long-standing international internship program–mostly involve developed countries. “A lot of our students would like to save the world,” Vandiver says. “She’s finding ways to help them do that.”
Smith’s approach to saving the world is pragmatic, much like her engineering philosophy. “There is a certain kind of engineering that I like to do,” she says. “I don’t like electricity and gadgetry. I simplify and simplify. None of my designs are complex. I always try to eliminate another part.” She reduces problems to basic principles, hoping to uncover an equally basic solution. By keeping things simple, she increases the odds that her inventions will be adopted in poor countries.
This way of thinking inspired her phase-change incubator, which won the 1999 Collegiate Inventors Award. In places without modern lab facilities, travel incubators are often used to cultivate lab samples needed to test for microörganisms in water supplies or to diagnose infectious diseases. Most travel incubators run on electricity, so people typically try to figure out how to keep them running in countries without reliable sources of power. Smith took the question back one more step: how do you keep things warm? That led to the innovative heart of the incubator–Ping-Pong-sized balls filled with a chemical that emits a constant warming energy as it changes from a liquid to a solid state. To incubate water-testing samples or lab specimens, the balls are heated up in hot water or the sun to melt the chemical and placed in an insulated container, such as a plastic cooler, where they radiate body-temperature heat while solidifying. A doctor in Pakistan wants to use Smith’s invention in vaccine trials. With help from a 2006 Innovation Grant from the MIT Deshpande Center, Smith is commercializing the incubator for use by governmental and nongovernmental organizations.
Smith’s inventiveness has garnered acclaim: in 2000 she became the first woman to win the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, and she won a 2004 MacArthur “genius” grant for her work as an inventor and educator. But she confesses that little of her ingenuity gets applied at her Beverly home, a small renovated house originally built for factory workers. One casualty of her growing programs has been her personal tinkering time. “I would love to be the type of person who buys a fixer-upper, but recently I went without hot water for a month and a half,” she says candidly.