When Rachel Smith ’09 sat in Bryant Haynes’ physics class at GPS, he piqued her passion for science. That interest never wavered, although Smith didn’t know how far it would carry her.
“Mr. Haynes is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” she says. “I don’t even think I did that well in his class, but he was so passionate about science.”
Haynes and other GPS teachers taught her to think critically about problems, present argumentative papers, and write thorough lab reports, skills she says many students don't learn until college.
“They ask a lot from students and go deeper into subjects,” Smith says. “Because of GPS, I understood that I had to work really hard because I was always in a room with really good students—and that made me a better student. I learned to think critically early on in my education. I learned to be efficient and manage my time.”
After GPS, when Smith attended the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, she initially majored in physics and pre-med. However, when she realized she wasn’t set on medical school, she wanted something more specific than physics and switched to biomedical engineering.
Through a chance project at her internship, Smith saw biomedical engineering in a new light.
She started an internship at Oak Ridge National Lab, working with a high-flux isotope reactor and neutron scattering, which didn’t necessarily align with her interests. She transferred to a different part of the lab to work with large-scale 3D printing, which introduced her to mechanical testing and material characterization. When that team took on a biomedical engineering project, everything clicked for Smith.
“I’d always had an underlying passion to work on a biomedical problem,” she says. She collaborated with a physician to design a device that would be used to treat lung collapse in military combat situations. She also worked with an Army veteran who was a transpelvic amputee to 3D print a custom orthotic so he could sit more comfortably.
“These kinds of projects have impact,” Smith says. “I knew then I wanted to pursue research that helps people.”
Lessons from GPS
Smith developed a sense of confidence, self-esteem, and self-awareness at GPS that helped her thrive in college and beyond. “I kind of fell into image and signal processing,” she says. That type of work is one component of biomedical engineering, considered a type of engineering that combines math and science to advance healthcare and medicine.
Today, Smith is pursuing her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the University of California, Irvine; she expects to complete her degree in June 2019. In the Laboratory of Computational and Translational Neuroscience, Smith is researching a specific form of epilepsy that affects children younger than age 2. Without quick treatment, the seizures can dramatically impact a child’s development. By using algorithms to characterize their brain networks, Smith is aiming to better predict when children will respond to a specific treatment, which can maximize their developmental outcome.
She loves the work she does, especially because this particular type of epilepsy is considered an orphaned disease, one that is not heavily researched. She’s one of the only researchers analyzing these data quantitatively and publishing papers on this topic so that doctors can change their practices based on her findings.
Looking Ahead to the Future
In addition to her research, Smith has been recognized for her outstanding efforts as a graduate teaching assistant, receiving two awards for her teaching and service in her college. Through her program, she pursued a pedagogical fellowship that explores evidence-based teaching practices to help other graduate students improve their teaching skills.
Looking ahead, Smith is applying to postdoctoral positions within the field of neurology, and eventually she’d like to find a faculty position at a research university. She’s considering work using control theory to design devices to help patients regain motor control after traumatic brain injuries.
While a GPS student, Smith says she couldn’t have anticipated working in neuroscience but is happy with the direction her path took. “I encourage GPS girls to utilize the school’s resources, seek out opportunities, and make connections with your teachers. They’re brilliant,” Smith says. “Become confident in who you are before you get to college, because GPS is such a supportive, inclusive, and wonderful place for girls to develop.”