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Lucas Smith '11 Featured in Statesman Journal

ARTICLE BY: Capi Lynn

Statesman Journal

October 3rd 2010

Salem Native is Pioneer in Medical Engineering

Back when Lucas Smith graduated from high school, he wasn't quite sure whether he wanted to go into the medical field or engineering.

 

"So I thought I'd just kind of take the middle road," Smith said.

 

That led the Salem native to the field of bioengineering, where today he is entrenched in research that he hopes someday will be used to design a new drug therapy for cerebral palsy.

 

An estimated 800,000 people in the United States suffer from the neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination. They often have reflexes they can't control, and their muscles are constantly stiff and rigid.

 

"The long-term goal of our research, I guess in the simplest terms, is to improve their mobility," Smith said. "What we're trying to do is figure out where that stiffness comes from within the muscles and design a therapy that could be used to prevent that stiffness."

 

His research, along with outstanding academic achievement and leadership qualities, has earned him national recognition.

 

Smith has been named a 2011 Siebel Scholar, and this weekend he is at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the foundation's annual conference.

 

The Siebel Foundation established the scholars program in 2000, to recognize the most talented students at the world's leading business and computer science schools. Just last year it expanded to include schools breaking new ground in bioengineering, including the University of California, San Diego, where Smith is working on his Ph.D.

 

The prestigious honor comes with a $35,000 award, which, from what Smith understands, has no stipulations as to how it can be used. That's good news for him, because he already has a fellowship through the Department of Defense that pays for his tuition and a provides a stipend.

 

Smith served two years as an officer in the Air Force, after getting his undergraduate degree. According to a biography on the Siebel Scholars website — Smith is one of five 2011 honorees featured there — he coordinated operational logistics to deploy thousands of troops and tons of cargo out of McChord Air Force Base (now called Joint Base Lewis-McChord).

 

"Lucas' laboratory career has been even more impressive than his military career," Dr. Richard Lieber, his faculty advisor, wrote in a recommendation letter. "I guess logistics is in Lucas' blood because, as his Ph.D. thesis, he has chosen to study the biological and mechanical properties of muscle from children with cerebral palsy — a true logistical nightmare."

 

As part of Smith's research, he has collected from patients at a nearby children's hospital 40 pairs of muscle biopsy specimens, on which he is performing high-resolution mechanical studies and a gene profiling study.

 

Just last weekend he presented his work at the annual meeting of the American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine in Washington, D.C.

 

I caught up with Smith, by phone, on his way back from that conference. We talked about the road he has taken since graduating from North Salem High School in 1999.

 

But when it came to the subject of his research— way above my head — I didn't bother asking for more explanation. I imagine a lot of people veer from the subject, even his own family.

 

"He has attempted to explain it to me a few times, but I soon get lost when he gets in much detail," said Craig Smith, his father. "So all we can say is we are very proud of him for wanting to help the kids he is working with and for what success he must be having as he has been asked to travel to various countries to present his research."

 

Lucas Smith's roots are right here in Salem, where he was born and raised. He attended Bethel Elementary, Parrish Middle School and then North Salem.

 

Two of his most memorable teachers were Leona Stortz (first and second grade at Bethel), who "really fostered kids' desire to learn," and Steve Chambers (history at North), who "really taught students to think critically more than memorize facts, and prepared us for college."

 

Smith's parents, Craig and Nancy Smith, still live here. Craig recently retired after 24 years as vice president and chief financial officer at Chemeketa Community College. They have three other adult children.

 

Bill is a supervisor at an electronics company in Denver; Jodi has a graduate fellowship at Portland State University and will graduate in June with a master's in business administration; and Travis will graduate in June from Oregon State University with a degree in civil engineering.

 

Lucas is the second-oldest. When he graduated from North Salem he was one of the school's 12 valedictorians. He was a member of National Honor Society and computer club, and participated in football and tennis.

 

He recently reconnected with his football ties and is helping coach the defensive backs and receivers — positions he played for the Vikings — at La Jolla Country Day High School.

 

The school is just down the street from our lab," Smith said. "I always had a lot of fun playing football at North."

 

After high school he went to the University of Washington, where he earned a bachelor's degree in bioengineering and joined ROTC.

 

The National Institutes of Health defines bioengineering, also called biomedical engineering, as "the application of the life sciences, mathematics and engineering principles to define and solve problems in biology, medicine, health care and other fields."

 

The Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego was one of the first in the country to establish a bioengineering department, which is currently ranked No. 2 by U.S. News & World Report for graduate students.

 

Its pioneering efforts were recognized by the Siebel Foundation, which selected 16 leading universities for the scholars program and gave each more than$2 million in grants. Each year five outstanding graduate students from those institutions are recognized as Siebel Scholars.

 

The other bioengineering schools are Johns Hopkins University, MIT, Stanford University and UC Berkeley.

 

In addition to the cash and the prestige, Siebel Scholars serve as key advisers to the foundation, guiding the development of innovative programs that it initiates.

 

Each year current and alumni scholars come together with some of the most brilliant minds in the world to discuss and debate critical social issues and develop innovative solutions. The topics at this year's conference are energy and climate.

 

"It's kind of like a think tank for the foundation," Smith said.

 

As for the cash award, Smith doesn't have plans for the money yet. But surely it will come in handy as he and his fiancée, Lindsay Frost, plan for their April 23 wedding.

 

"We might take a little nicer honeymoon now," Smith said.

 

He and Frost met at UC San Diego, where she was a medical student. They both hope to complete their studies in June, and then find a place to settle that has a lab where he can continue his academic research and a hospital where she can complete her residency program.

 

"It'll be a little more complicated, but I think it should work out," Smith said. "We're thinking about coming back up to the Northwest."

 

See original article at http://www.statesmanjournal.com/article/20101003/COLUMN0807/10030354/1126/COLUMN