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UU awarded MacArthur 'genius grant'

Amy Smith, an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a lifelong member of Follen Church in Lexington, Massachusetts.
By Donald E. Skinner
March/April 2005 3.1.05

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As a design engineer for developing countries, Amy Smith, recipient of a half-million-dollar MacArthur Fellowship, has devoted her career to proving that technology can be simple and cheap.

Smith, 42, is an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a lifelong member of Follen Church in Lexington, Massachusetts. The prestigious MacArthur Fellowships, often called "genius grants," are given annually to 20 to 30 people to recognize and encourage their creativity.

Smith's inventions have included a laboratory incubator for conducting medical tests and testing water supplies that requires no electricity, and an improved hammer mill for grinding grain. Her department is also supporting the development of a process for making charcoal briquettes from agricultural waste, a process that could reduce deforestation in Haiti.

Smith has been at MIT for much of the time since 1980, when she became an undergraduate. She served in the Peace Corps in the 1980s in Africa and lived in India for a year.

In a worship service this winter at Follen with the Rev. Lucinda Duncan, Smith read a quote by the Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale that inspires her: "I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still, I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."

"Almost every time I'm in this church," Smith told the congregants, "I flip the hymnal open to that quote. In many ways, it is the essence of what I do, and I like to get recharged by it." She used the quote in the first proposal she wrote at MIT. "That's what really started me going in this field of engineering design for developing countries."

During the 1990s, Smith learned that by 2000 a quarter of the population of one nation in Southern Africa would die from aids. "For me, this was unbearable, because those statistics had faces," she says. "They had raised their hands in my class to answer questions. They had come to my house to read my comic books and learn to cook pizza and brownies. We had worked side by side building beehives."

She began working on lab equipment to help with diagnostic testing for sexually transmitted diseases and then used that equipment for water quality testing also. The laboratory incubator she developed costs about $50 compared with more than $1,000 for a battery-operated one. "So by not refusing to do the something I could do, it turned into something that seems to be making an impact," she said.

Smith has also had an impact on her students. This year 35 of her MIT students will be going to work in eight countries.

To prepare, Smith requires her students to live for one week in Cambridge on $2 a day for food, the equivalent of what the average Haitian earns. Students find that difficult, but they learn that subsistence living requires enormous creativity.

The MacArthur awards, given in quarterly installments over five years, are designed to enable recipients to exercise their own creativity for the benefit of humankind. "The award can be life changing, offering highly creative women and men the gift of time and the unfettered opportunity to explore, create, and contribute," said Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation.

Smith plans to use the award money to develop the charcoal making and the grain mill projects and to visit Haiti and Africa. She'd also like to create a technology center that would support similar projects.

At the Follen Church Smith serves as a youth advisor and as a Partner Church Committee member.

Duncan calls Smith a bridge builder. "Amy is most always involved with folks that others overlook such as youth, the urban poor, Hopi nation youth, Transylvanian Unitarian youth, and probably much more."

"There are two facets to growing up Unitarian," Smith said. "One is that you get to develop your own belief system. So there's no excuse to not live it because you created it. And second, other religions have a deep-seated faith in a deity. I didn't grow up having that kind of faith. Instead I have faith in people, that they will be good to each other, and that they will respond effectively in the world."

Smith does not own a car, only recently acquired a cellphone, and works "all the time," she said. "I grew up believing I could make a difference in the world, that if I saw something that was not right it was up to me to try to address it, whether that meant buying a meal for a homeless person or fixing a broken toilet in a restaurant," she said. "I've always wanted to make a lasting contribution, and now, with this prize, I guess I don't have any excuse. I've been given the opportunity to do something major and I need to be sure that I do it."

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