“Those were my kids he was talking about,” she says. But what could she do? “I choose problems I can do something about,” she says. “There are a whole bunch of problems I can’t do something about, and I’m not working on them.” She learned that better diagnosis and treatment of other, curable sexually transmitted diseases could slow HIV transmission by preventing the open sores that make it easier for HIV to enter the bloodstream. Her incubator technology, which had been one of many projects in the pipeline, became a top priority, since it could aid diagnostic testing that required growing cultures. (Smith’s incubator is currently used in water-quality testing, but she hopes to have it deployed soon in the fight against AIDS.) That trip to Africa also motivated her to propose her first development class, Designs for Developing Countries, which she began teaching through the Edgerton Center in 1997, while she was a graduate student.
In 2000, she ditched her graduate studies for a job as a full-fledged instructor at the Edgerton Center. She then teamed up with Sally Susnowitz of the Public Service Center to apply for the grant that would provide the foundation for MIT’s burgeoning development engineering programs. In fall 2002, she launched an undergraduate course called the Haiti Class. During the January Independent Activities Period, Smith took her students to Haiti to meet the people they were trying to help. The Haiti Class ultimately evolved into D-Lab (see “D-Lab at a Glance”). “Our sphere of influence is gradually getting bigger and hopefully will continue to do so,” she says.
“Amy has bottomless energy,” says friend and colleague Susan Murcott, a senior lecturer at MIT who works to improve water sanitation in Nepal. “And she conveys that enthusiasm to the students. She’s a natural teacher. She doesn’t have the answers. She engages in mutual exploration.”
On a Tuesday in October, the introductory D-Lab classroom is packed. (As usual, this fall’s course was oversubscribed: nearly 75 students vied in a lottery for 30 spots.) For the rest of the term, in addition to hearing Smith lecture on technology’s appropriate and effective use in the developing world, students will team up to research specific community needs and develop technologies to address them. During the January interim session, most students will travel to far-flung countries and work with community partners to adapt their technologies to local conditions. Whatever trip you end up preparing for, Smith promises her students, “I guarantee you will work hard and come away happy with what you do.”