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Meet: Jeffrey Smith

Deputy Director
NASA Ames Biocomputation Center


photo of jeffrey smith at computer


What I do

I work closely with the director to coordinate research and technology development at the Biocomputation Center. This involves experiments such as Neurolab, but we also work on medical imaging tools that are used for surgical planning and training. Right now our computer scientists are creating software that allows surgeons we work with at Stanford University to look at 3D images of the face and skull of their patients. This way, they can plan out their surgeries before going into the operating room. We call it "Virtual Surgery."

My Career Journey

In 9th grade I had an Earth science teacher who really got me excited about studying the physical world. I was most interested in the stars and planets and things like how different wavelengths of light were able to bend at different angles in a prism to separate by color creating a rainbow. That was "physics" and I thought, "if nothing else excites me more through high school, I'll be a physics major in college." That's what I did, but during my first year of college I had an incredible class (with an incredible professor) on conservation and how the delicate balance of life in any ecosystem depends on every creature, from bacteria to people. I was fascinated by all the amazing things animals (mostly insects) did in order to survive and compete with other species. So I added a zoology major to my physics major at Miami University (Oxford Ohio).

The rest of my time in college was spent trying to figure out how I could combine both my love for physics with my fascination for the living world. Eventually I decided on "computational biology" which is a sophisticated way of saying I use computers to study biology. I suppose the reason I do computational biology for NASA all started back in 9th grade with my interest in stars and planets. I've kept with that interest by aiming my computer and biology skills at the study of life in space. And that's what Neurolab is all about.

Likes/Dislikes about career

As a NASA representative I really enjoy talking to people about why it's important for us to explore space and why it's important for us to learn about what happens to all kinds of life, from people down to bacteria, in the microgravity environment of space.

On the negative side, after high school I went to college for 10 straight years to get four degrees including a Ph.D. That was A LOT of work, but I've always thought of school and education as part of my career. Even now, I'm learning new things every day. That's what "science" and "research" are--learning.

Also, as a NASA scientist it would take a long time to make a million dollars. But I absolutely positively LOVE my job.

Influences

I think my dad had a lot to do with my career--he worked at NASA, too, and took me to visit several times a year. So I was exposed to NASA science and engineering at a very young age. I also enjoyed reading science fiction books by Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlin, and L. Ron Hubbard. But most important, I never OVER did it. I've always loved camping, skiing, and sports. I even played in the marching band during high school. No one has to be completely immersed in NASA and science from a very young age to become a NASA scientist. I think it's better to have lots of interests.

My mom is responsible for my positive attitude--without it I'd still be saying, "I can't take Calculus, it's too hard." There are always people who influence us to choose one career path over another, but I find it funny how we don't really know who's doing the influencing until much later when we're looking back.

Advice

Work hard, play hard. That was my motto through high school and college. Plan out your time and when it's time to work--work as hard as you can. When it's time to play--always give 110%. But most important, keep a positive attitude. I think it actually helps make positive things happen.

Personal Information

My favorite hobbies are skiing, mountain biking, camping and most recently, surfing. I also LOVE to travel. I've been to Europe, Central America and all over the U.S. and Canada. I've learned at least as much traveling as I have in any classroom.


Learn more from my NeurOn Chats
January 13, l998

 
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