Although her work takes her around the globe, Smith feels strong ties to the Boston area. She grew up in nearby Lexington; her father, Arthur, is an MIT electrical-engineering professor, and her mother, Anne, taught middle-school math. The family moved to India for a year when she was six, and the poverty she saw there influenced her outlook. But what really ignited her interest in development was a Boston Globe article she read a few years later, encouraging support of a holiday charity that gives presents to poor kids. Toys seemed the wrong priority in a world where children were starving, she says. Until the end of high school, she stashed half her baby-sitting money in a jelly jar. Every time the jar filled, she sent the savings off to Unicef.
After graduating from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Smith spent two years volunteering around Boston–tutoring at Boston English high school, working at the Boston Food Bank, coaching Special Olympics, providing meals to the homeless at Sunday’s Bread, and coaching the junior-varsity women’s volleyball team at MIT. In 1986, she joined the Peace Corps; two years later she was named volunteer of the year. After two years of teaching high school in Botswana, she stayed on for two more as a regional beekeeper and apiculture trainer, earning the nickname “Mmadinotshe,” or Queen Bee, as she taught farmers, students, and women’s groups how to keep bees, capture wild colonies, and build hives.
While Smith was in Botswana, her mother died. After returning home for the memorial service, she found it so hard to go back to Africa that she almost bolted from the plane before it took off. Though her friends in Botswana were truly sympathetic, “I needed to be around people who knew her and knew me,” she says. “I realized how important it was to be with family.” Two years later, Smith returned to MIT as a graduate student. “I found a way to be here and still do work that will have a larger impact,” she says.
Smith jokes that she may be the only person who’s ever deliberately pursued the MIT degree of Mechanical Engineer; akin to a doctorate but without the research or thesis project, the ME is often seen as a fallback degree if something goes wrong en route to a PhD. Smith, however, felt that a more general education would be more useful than doing specialized research for a PhD. “My goal was to get a broad enough background so I wouldn’t be dependent on other people if I needed to hook up a motor, for example,” she says.
In 1995, Smith had started on a master’s in the Technology and Policy Program. As a graduate teaching assistant, she traveled to southern Africa to identify multiple projects for a junior-level mechanical-design class that typically tackled one development project every few years. By then, HIV/AIDS had hit Botswana hard. One of the many people she interviewed there predicted that one-quarter of the population would die of AIDS by 2000.