Interview: Amy Smith, Inventor

Amy Smith, a practitioner of humanitarian engineering, wants to solve everyday problems for rural families in the developing world.

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Amy Smith, who has a master's degree in mechanical engineering and teaches at MIT, isn't interested in building faster computers or bigger jetliners. She's thinking about how to cook dinner in a Haitian slum. Most of Haiti has been deforested, few people have electricity, and fossil fuels are prohibitively expensive. But there's something Haiti has a lot of: bagasse, or sugar-cane fibers left over after processing. Smith and her students have developed a way to turn this plentiful (and otherwise useless) material into clean-burning charcoal by carbonizing it in a covered oil drum. It's a simple solution to a simple problem, but—like many of Smith's projects—it makes a big difference in ordinary people's lives.

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Smith, a practitioner of humanitarian engineering, wants to solve everyday problems for rural families in the developing world: where to find clean water, how to preserve vegetables for market, how to do laundry without electricity or plumbing. Smith's inventions include a hammer mill for grinding grain into flour—a task African women usually do by hand—and a portable kit to test drinking water for contaminating bacteria. Smith, who was awarded a Macarthur Fellowship in 2004, runs MIT's IDEAS Competition, for which teams of student engineers design projects to make life easier in the developing world.

What would you say was the coolest project that you've worked on?

Well, it's not very romantic, but I think our charcoal project is going to have a huge impact, because it allows you to have a clean-burning fuel without cutting down trees. We're planning large-scale dissemination in Haiti. There's no glitz factor to it, but it's probably going to make a huge amount of difference.

Have the inventions that come out of your class and out of the IDEAS competition proved successful in the field?

Some of the IDEAS competition winners have been very successful. The compound water filter, which removes arsenic and pathogens, is now deployed quite extensively in Nepal. The Kinkajou microfilm projector, used in nighttime literacy classes, is being deployed in Mali. We’re working to commercialize a system for testing water for potability. It's in the field in several countries, but not on a widespread basis. We're looking towards doing a trial of aerosol vaccines in Pakistan, so that's exciting.

What is the biggest problem facing rural communities in the developing world?

I don't think you can say there's a single one. Obviously access to safe drinking water is a huge problem, and lack of access to opportunities, and general poverty. But if you get people safe drinking water, and then they still have no way to earn any money to feed their families, you still have a problem. And if you give them better methods of agricultural processing or ways to create clean energy, but there's still drinking water that makes them sick, you still have a problem. There are too many interrelated issues, so solving one problem won't completely change the lives of millions.

You lived in India as a child and you were in the Peace Corps in Botswana in the 1980s. How did those experiences lead to what you're doing now?

As a very young child I was exposed to very severe poverty, so I always wanted to do something to help kids around the world. Living in India is something that stayed with me—I could put faces on the kids who had so little money. In Botswana, I was teaching and then working for the ministry of agriculture as a beekeeper, and I remember thinking to myself that I really liked doing development work, but I wished could do some engineering too, because I like creative problem solving. People in the developing world scrape every last ounce of life that they can out of objects, and my students used to bring me things to fix, and I always enjoyed being able to do that.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Michigan-based freelance journalist writing about cities, science, the environment, art and education. A longtime Smithsonian contributor, her work also appears in CityLab and the Boston Globe.

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