February 28, 2002 - Voston Business Journal: Botswana RPCV Amy Smith invents devices designed to aid the rural populations of Africa and other areas

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Botswana: Special Report: Inventor and Botswana RPCV Amy Smith: February 28, 2002 - Voston Business Journal: Botswana RPCV Amy Smith invents devices designed to aid the rural populations of Africa and other areas

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Botswana RPCV Amy Smith invents devices designed to aid the rural populations of Africa and other areas

Botswana RPCV Amy Smith invents devices designed to aid the rural populations of Africa and other areas

Technology as a form of altruism
Award-winning grad returns to MIT to take on Third World problems
Roberta Holland
Journal Staff

CAMBRIDGE--Amy Smith isn't the typical grad student, and by all accounts she wasn't the typical teen-ager either. Growing up in the affluent suburb of Lexington, Smith used to donate half of her baby-sitting money to UNICEF.

Now 37, Smith is continuing her efforts to aid the less privileged, combining her passion for volunteer work with her skill as a mechanical engineer. Working on her second master's degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Smith has invented several devices designed to aid the rural populations of Africa and other areas.

This month Smith became the first woman to win the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, which honors inventors who also make good role models.

One of Smith's inventions, which she tested successfully in Senegal, is a motorized hammermill that converts grain into flour in a fraction of the time it takes to do the job by hand. She hopes to use some of the prize money to help get the mills produced and distributed and do further testing.

"I couldn't imagine people over here getting so excited over a mill," said Smith, referring to the enthusiasm of the Senegalese when her device worked. "You forget the little things are so important in other parts of the world."

Smith learned that firsthand as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana, where she spent four years in the middle of the Kalahari Desert and was named the organization's volunteer of the year for Africa in 1988.

"At one point I had sort of an epiphany, sitting at my desk looking out over the bush, when I realized I wanted to do engineering for developing countries," Smith said.

Smith returned to MIT to boost her engineering know-how and get her master's degree in mechanical engineering. Now she's working on a second master's in technology and policy along with a half-dozen other inventions.

Her father, MIT electrical engineering professor Arthur Smith, is not surprised his daughter is trying to make a difference for Third World countries.

"She always had a different view of what was important in the world," said Arthur Smith, who moved his family to India for a year when Amy was in second grade to work at a university there. "I think that set a lot of things in motion for her. It's very different from growing up in a Boston suburb."

George Michel, one of the judges in the Lemelson-MIT competition, said he was impressed by Smith's volunteer work and her drive to attack problems that are not necessarily financially rewarding.

"I think inventors by and large march to a different drummer anyway," Michel said. "Obviously she has a very fertile brain, and she is quick to recognize a need and apply her talents."

Smith now is focusing on medical devices for use in rural areas, and invented an incubator that requires no electricity. Originally designed to diagnose sexually transmitted diseases, the incubator is more promising for water quality testing.

Smith and a group of friends are entering MIT's $50,000 business plan competition, with the incubator as the product. Smith said the group will start a company around the incubator regardless of whether it wins the contest this spring, although it hasn't yet decided if it should be for-profit. Called a phase-change incubator, Smith's invention won the 1999 B.F. Goodrich Collegiate Inventor's Award for $20,000.

"I'm not a person who likes money, so whether it makes a profit is neither here nor there," Smith said. "I didn't want to be in the position of closing down the product because it wasn't making money. That's not the point of the product."

Smith received her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1984. She credits her parents with instilling in her the desire to help others. And, although her mother passed away 10 years ago, Smith said she can still hear her admonishing people to fix a situation rather than complain about it.

Smith began working on the mill after someone brought the project to MIT for students to work on. The problem with other motor-driven mills is that the screen used to filter out the flour cannot be made locally and would often clog because of rocks or coins mixed in with the grain, imposing a waiting period of several months to get a new screen imported.

Smith invented a design that sifts out the finished flour aerodynamically, using a simpler and cheaper design that can be manufactured by village blacksmiths. Grinding time is cut from one kilogram an hour by hand to a kilogram a minute.

"It's nice when looking at things differently is a good thing, and not something where you get zero credit on a problem," Smith said.

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Story Source: Voston Business Journal

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Botswana; Engineering; Inventions; Awards



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