Daily Iowan: On the Alert to Be Able to Help

Thursday, December 15, 2011

By Asmaa Elkeurti
Daily Iowan
Photo Credit: Jacklyn Couppee

For University of Iowa senior Luke Smith and his family, vacations are nothing but another opportunity to help.

The 23-year-old Iowa City native has been involved in volunteer work most of his life, visiting countries from Ghana and Nicaragua to Mexico and Guatemala to aid individuals in developing nations.

One reason he said he chose engineering as a major is because he felt he could use it to help more people.

"I realized you could make a huge difference for a large number of people at one time by simply giving them clean drinking water," he said. "I was also thinking of possibly doing pre-med to be a doctor, and then I realized there was Engineers Without Borders, and in a way, you could help more people at once."

Smith is the president of the UI Engineers Without Borders, an international program allowing engineers to implement designs in ways that aid communities in developing nations.

Smith said his family significantly influenced his desire to help, and always encouraged volunteer work.

"My parents implemented these values. We would do trips in the U.S. where we went to an Indian reservation and helped build a storage center. We went to the Appalachians and helped build homes there. On Thanksgiving, we always served food to those in need," he said. "[My parents have] been awesome. One Christmas … they gave us $20 and said, 'See how you can help someone with this 20.'"

In the 1990s, Smith's older sister was diagnosed with a rare kidney disorder that requires frequent dialysis. Smith's parents — UI art academic adviser Lynne Lanning and otolaryngology Professor Richard Smith — founded the Kidneeds organization in 1997.

"Nobody in Iowa City knows anybody else with this disease, and yet the Iowa City community has embraced us on developing a cure and a treatment for this disease and partnered with us all the way, since 1997," Richard Smith said.

After almost 15 years of work, clinical trials will be held for a new drug this spring or summer, Richard Smith said. The response from the community is what prompted the family to reach out to others.

"You can imagine as a family how you'd want to give back and touch people just as they've touched you," he said. "Luke does this in an outstanding way."

Lanning said while Smith's accomplishments don't surprise her, they do evoke pride.

"When he was younger, he was the kid who would go and help somebody else, even the little things, like taking out garbage that was hard for somebody to carry," Lanning said. "I'm not surprised that he's pursued this. With all the different ways you can use your time, I'm very happy that that's the way he's chosen to do it."

Craig Just, a UI civil and environmental engineering research scientist, said Smith has shown leadership in the classroom through personality and talent.

"I've been here 18 years, and Luke is in a category of students who have a nice coupling with left and right brain function," he said. "I've had several students over the years who have been favorites, who fit in a certain category, who are creative and analytical at the same time like Luke. Only a handful of students over time have had that combination."