Published May 10, 2016
Anna Smith has earned distinction around campus for her — to say the least — nontraditional career path. Smith ran her own makeup business in Paris and New York for five years before she decided — unlikely as it seemed to many around her — that she wanted to be an engineer.
“Against all odds,” was the first thing Smith said when discussing her road as UB’s 2016 Goldwater Scholarship recipient.
Her admirers and boosters should consider the rest of the story. After all the disappointments and disillusionments Smith has gone through to get here, she makes it clear there is a message she wants others to hear. She says it with her familiar steely determination and the no-nonsense approach of someone who had to prove herself every step of the way.
Despite obstacles that could have made others bitter, Smith’s defining message is as idealistic and encouraging as a university admissions office brochure.
“An education in engineering or some similar field can offer you a lot,” she says, in almost the same breath as explaining how young women in engineering often are treated differently from their male peers.
“You can come from nothing and an engineering degree can help you get somewhere, even if you don’t have money or if you come from an environment where people are unfamiliar with engineering as a career. If you work hard, you can make something of yourself.”
It’s a particularly powerful message coming from Smith, who as much as anyone knows the real world often acts in anything but a collegial way. She knows she lived what many consider a fantasy life while she ran her own makeup business for magazines and catalogs after moving to Paris soon after high school. And make no mistake, there were exciting and fulfilling times. After earning the proper credentials, she organized, trained and supervised crews of makeup artists for on-site photography shoots. But the darker side of making a living in that business eventually led her to search for more.
“It’s a magical world on the outside,” says Smith, now 28. “But one of the things that turned me off to it is people do not collaborate with each other. There are a lot of walls built up between going on projects together so they’re not able to produce their best work. I saw it happen repeatedly. It’s anything but collaborative.
“It’s a cutthroat industry. There is no loyalty to the people. You can work for a client and do an incredible job, and everyone goes home happy. And they won’t hire you again because they found someone cheaper, or somebody who knows so-and-so.
“So even if you do incredible work and you have an incredible network, that doesn’t mean that your career will necessarily take off,” says Smith.
Her professional makeup-artist chapter did provide that link to her blossoming engineering career. While running her makeup company, Smith met an engineer who owned a company that produced a self-buffering skin peel that was easier on the skin than others on the market. It was a product developed with his engineering expertise. This was the first time Smith had really talked to an engineer. She had no background in engineering.
“Nothing,” Smith says. “I didn’t know what physics was. I couldn’t add fractions.”
But the fascination with the underlying principles of chemistry and how they can lead to innovation — in this case in the beauty market Smith knew so well — took hold in a big way.
“I wasn’t inspired in what I was doing,” Smith says. “I didn’t feel challenged. And I wanted to do something that made a bigger impact. And when I talked to him, I said to myself, ‘Why am I not doing this? This is inspiring. I think I have something to contribute by bringing more innovative ideas to the market.’ And that was what sparked my interest in getting more involved in a STEM career, going in that direction.
“After learning how incredibly creative and powerful an engineering research career could be, I was immediately driven to make a career change.
“But I wasn’t sure I could do it.”
Smith’s path to the Goldwater Scholarship followed that same trend. It’s a national recognition for research achievements, Smith says, a distinction and avenue into a national research network, probably more invaluable than the scholarship money.
Smith is among this year’s 252 award winners chosen by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program from a nationwide pool of 1,150 undergraduate applicants. Congress established the program in 1986 to honor Barry Goldwater, a five-term senator from Arizona. Each award winner will receive up to $7,500 per year to cover educational expenses for college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.
“I wasn’t even planning to apply,” says Smith. “I didn’t think I could win. I’m not a 4.0 student. I’m not perfect. A lot of students who have won Goldwater Scholarships before have parents who are professors or who work in the chemical engineering industry. And before my engineering mentor, I had never been exposed to the engineering discipline or any researchers who worked in the field.”
But Liesl Folks, dean of UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, recognized Smith’s promise, calling her “an extraordinary student with all the cognitive and non-cognitive skills to perform truly groundbreaking research as she pursues her graduate degree and beyond.”
Folks was particularly impressed with Smith’s “clarity of thought and determination.”
“I can think of no other student who has arrived in my office with such a clearly distilled plan,” Folks wrote in Smith’s Goldwater application.
Folks recommended Smith to Elizabeth Colucci, UB’s coordinator of fellowships and scholarships, whose office has fostered a significant increase in the number of UB undergraduates chosen for nationally competitive scholarships. And Colucci reached out.
“So when Elizabeth contacted me and said, ‘You should come into my office and we can talk about this,’ I was like, ‘OK,’ ” Smith says.
So thanks to the Goldwater award, Smith’s can-do message has multiple elements. Now, her answer to the critics and doubters goes beyond how engineering students do not have to fit some narrow mode. It’s also about being chosen for one of the nation’s most prestigious undergraduate science research fellowships.
“I think it’s important I am recognized for these things to get out my message, and that is you can come from any background and if you work hard, you can get here.”
Smith, who has run UB student seminars called “She’s Not Cut Out for STEM” that make colleagues and students aware of real-life, shocking instances of sexism against female engineers, pulls few punches when it comes to her personal experiences.
She wishes others around her had been more encouraging. As much as she tried to discount it, the negative feelings could hurt. There were a lot of naysayers, some who probably meant well and others who clearly didn’t.
“I’ve gotten messages — direct and subtle — from colleagues telling me I should quit or I wasn’t suitable for an engineering career,” Smith says. “People I knew before I was a student would tell me ‘You can’t possibly do this.’
“I faced a lot of challenges. And I hope that if I keep going, what keeps me going is to help make things easier for people who come after me. Especially for women and other underrepresented groups.
“Because it’s hard. And sometimes I really want to quit.”
Folks remains impressed with Smith’s almost singular path to her promising engineering and research career.
“I believe that background is important information since it makes clear how very determined this student is,” Folks wrote, “and how many highly developed skills she brings to the research enterprise.
“She did not arrive at the university perfectly prepared to succeed. Instead, she has figured out where the gaps in her preparation were and dedicated herself to addressing each of them in turn.
“This is a student of rare grit and determination, even in the face of personal adversity, such as she unfortunately faced this past semester as her marriage ended, creating significant emotional and financial turmoil in her life,” according to Folks. “These experiences, much more than perfect preparation, will be invaluable as she pursues her graduate path and I anticipate that she will have a brilliant and highly creative career as a researcher as a direct result.”
Smith has turned her determination into an impressive resume of research jobs, as well as a strong interest in encouraging promising students in underrepresented groups. She was a researcher in the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network Research Experience for Undergraduates in Stanford University’s chemical engineering department, designing an artificial eye camera that conforms to the shape of an eye sensor. She was a research and development intern at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering within SEMATECH.
Closer to home, Smith has worked with UB’s National Science Foundation-funded Interdisciplinary Science and Education Partnership, which improves science education at at-risk schools in the Buffalo Public Schools. She hosted a UB visit for students from Buffalo’s PS 59, hoping to spark interest in a STEM career. oSTEM, the club Smith co-founded at UB and is president of, is recognized as a university-wide LGBTA professional organization for graduate, undergraduate, faculty and staff members in STEM. Smith will spend the summer in Boise, Idaho, working in Micron Technology’s research and development department.
And through it all, that clarity Folks recognized and praised remains as focused as ever: complete a PhD in chemical engineering and become an interdisciplinary researcher. Then start a company based on the innovative research and development of materials and electronics.
“I plan to launch my own company based on products developed from novel research ideas that I will work on during my PhD and beyond. In addition to my aspirations to make advancements in research and bring these ideas to fruition in industry, I am committed to serving the community by promoting the STEM fields through outreach and mentorship programs.”
Those who have watched Smith’s progress would agree. Not to mention the Goldwater Scholarship board. The more Smith talks, and after each meaningful accomplishment, those odds she cited of her success sound more and more like a good bet than anything resembling a long shot.