February 21, 2012

A Global Professor: Joshua Smith’s Teaching and Research Have Taken Him all Over the World

Professor Joshua Smith works with Kathleen Starkweather '11.

Professor Joshua Smith works with Kathleen Starkweather '11.

Spin a globe and place your finger on it. Wherever it lands, it may not be far from where Joshua Smith, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is working. An adviser to the Lafayette student chapter Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and its work in Honduras, a fluid-flow researcher with brain tissue modeling collaborations in Colombia and Japan, and the faculty director of Lafayette’s study abroad program at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain, Smith commands a global reach.

“I have a passion for international education,” says Smith, but a multicultural perspective wasn’t always on his mind.

“I wasn’t attracted to study abroad when I was an undergraduate,” he confesses. Instead, armed with a bachelor’s and master’s in mathematics and a mechanical & aerospace engineering doctorate, Smith gravitated to an inner world, the human brain.

In his primary research, Smith studies fluid-flow dynamics in the spongy lattice of gray matter. He creates mathematical and software-based models to discover how the disease of hydrocephalus deforms brain tissue. In doing so, he hopes to better understand how convection-based delivery of therapeutic drugs to difficult-to-reach intracranial tumors, a process which artificially swells brain tissue much like hydrocephalus does naturally, can be achieved without lasting damage to delicate brain structures.

Using models for this work is a relatively new field. Smith’s graduate school adviser and fellow researcher, University of Virginia’s Joseph “Pepe” Humphrey, connected him with Professor José Jaime García of the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia, and researchers at The Institute of Fluid Science at Tohoku University in Japan. These collaborations and opportunities to travel abroad stirred Smith to study Spanish and Japanese and to develop a love for educational opportunities in other cultures.

He took students Martin Racenis ’11 and Kathleen Starkweather ’11 to Tohoku University for collaborative research experiences in 2010 and 2011. And when Marco Tjioe ’09 of Engineers Without Borders approached him in fall 2008 to serve as an adviser and to help with delivering clean water to villages in Honduras, Smith eagerly agreed to help.

“It was a profound experience,” Smith says of his first trip with the group. “I spent two full weeks with four students in this small village without running water or electricity, sleeping on the concrete floor of the village’s one-room schoolhouse. I saw the faces of women and children the first time water was delivered through the system EWB designed.”

The joy of that experience prompted him to become EWB’s faculty adviser and take four more trips with the group. In addition, he developed a Values and Science/Technology (VAST) course, “Water, Water Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Drink.”

What Smith experienced in Honduras and Japan charted new directions for him.

“I’ve seen the value of how different cultures approach their work, how research is conducted in a Japanese environment,” he says. “Seeing the value for students as they do research or service learning projects has been profound to me, which whet my interest in the study abroad program at Saint Louis University.”

Today, Smith works with 25 Lafayette students in an international program at Madrid’s Saint Louis University. The program includes 300 American students from other colleges also, such as University of Pennsylvania and Harvey Mudd. To tie together his international experiences, Smith teaches his VAST course to 22 Lafayette sophomores at Saint Louis.

Smith, 33, feels he is still learning, but his youth serves him well. As one of the younger professors at Lafayette, he offers his students a different perspective from that of senior faculty who may have come to their role through industry. Smith has always felt destined for colleges rather than corporations, and he believes this helps his students.

“I bring a more academic interest for students who are going to graduate school. We younger professors relate more easily to those students,” he says. “When one of them is accepted to graduate studies, that indicates I’ve done well to train them so that a graduate adviser is interested in doing research with them for four or five years.”

posted in Academic News, Engineering, Faculty and Staff, Faculty Profiles, News and Features, Top News, Work with Stellar Professor-Mentors

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