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MIT Student Wins Prize for Design Innovations to Aid Developing Countries

Cambridge, MA, February 9, 2000 — When asked about her approach to invention, Amy Smith states, "invention is a challenge for me to take my technical skills and put them to good use. Problem solving has always been in my blood. I'm the kind of person who will walk into a restroom, see a broken sink and fix it, instead of complaining that someone else should take care of it."

Smith has applied this attitude to her research, where she focuses upon inventions that address problems in developing countries. "The possibility to invent something that could make a difference is always out there, the biggest obstacle is locating the funds to follow through with it, and that is why the Lemelson-MIT Program is so great."

Smith’s tireless efforts to help the technologically disadvantaged extend to her decision not to pursue a patent on her screenless hammermill invention. "This is a case where you have a new technology and you are trying to get as many people as possible to use it. Obtaining a patent would only get in the way of the people who could most benefit from the mill. In fact, in this case, I want to encourage patent infringement!"

Smith credits the Lemelson-MIT Program for its visible commitment to championing the role of innovation and its potential benefits to society, especially for celebrating inventors as role models and mentors. "To me, the lack of self-confidence in today's youth is one of the biggest factors preventing them from being more involved in inventing. Society doesn't seem to foster this much anymore, and we seem to be lacking in hands-on creative activities in the classroom. I believe that teachers and academia need to be more involved in getting children more interested in design and innovation. I applaud the Lemelson-MIT Program for its efforts in trying to incite more students to create and invent. Too many times students hear that they have the wrong answer, when in fact it's a new answer!"

By volunteering to teach classes and seminars that expose freshmen, sophomores and younger students to the design process, and challenging them to develop a device that involves "low" technology and high design skills, Smith has become an outspoken R&D advocate for the use of appropriate technology in the areas of Africa she knows best. With David Gordon Wilson, professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, she is perfecting a CD-ROM designed to give instruction in engineering design to people who have had little practical field experience, once again with conditions in southern Africa in mind.

In 1996, Smith received a grant from the MIT School of Engineering to travel to Southern Africa to identify projects to be used to enhance undergraduate engineering design courses. Her Phase-Change Incubator won her the 1999 B.F. Goodrich Collegiate Inventor's Award and is part of an on-going project to redesign medical laboratory equipment for use in remote clinics and field laboratories in developing countries.

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Among Smith's top priorities is starting a company to manufacture her phase-change incubator, and she will be using her prize-money as preliminary funding to build the castings for the prototype. Another goal is to return to Africa and set up field sites and conduct field testing of her screenless hammermill in Zimbabwe. She also intends to set up field testing of her phase-change incubator in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa.

From 1986-90, she served in the US Peace Corps on assignment in Botswana, Africa, where she was a regional bee-keeping officer who trained farmers, women's and school groups in basic apiculture—including building hives and basic hive management. She also taught Science, English and Mathematics to secondary students. In 1988 she was the Volunteer of the Year for Botswana and subsequently won the JFK Volunteer of the Year Award for the Africa Region representing over 2500 volunteers.

Smith has an extensive curriculum development background. As part of the USAID Tertiary Education Linkages Project, she worked with authors at South African Technikons to develop textbooks in Mechanical Engineering Drawing, Civil Engineering Drawing and Civil Engineering Construction Materials and Methods. She has created several hands-on design seminars through the Edgerton Center at MIT, ranging from designing medical equipment for developing countries to making kaleidoscopes to writing a magazine. She taught recitation sections and was responsible for administration of "The Mechanics of Solids" class at MIT, where she created a manual for the computer-aided structural analysis program. She also worked as a research assistant on the design of a low-technology system for producing vaccines in developing countries.

Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The program celebrates inspirational role models in the fields of science, engineering, medicine and entrepreneurship, in the hope of encouraging future generations to follow their example. For more information on the program's awards and outreach activities, please contact Kristin Joyce, Communications Officer, at 617-258-0632.

Previous student prize winners include 1999 winner Daniel DiLorenzo, who develops devices to restore function to patients with neurological damage or disease;1998 winner Akhil Madhani, inventor of robotic surgical devices; winner Nathan Kane, who licensed his bellows designs to two companies; 1996 winner, David Levy, who founded his own company, TH, Inc. ("think"), to market and develop inventions such as the world's smallest keyboard, and the 1995 (and first) Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winner Thomas Massie, who founded SensAble Devices to market his computer Haptic interface.

Read more about Amy Smith.

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