Faculty Member Awarded Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Grant

Beth Smith

BY JOHN HOBBS MA ’14

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced the latest round of its Grand Challenges Explorations grant winners on Nov. 4, and for the first time, a USC faculty member earned the distinction.

Beth Smith, assistant professor at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, was awarded one of 60 Phase 1 grants meant to foster bold and innovative solutions to global health and development challenges.

The researcher—whose academic work has largely focused on neural control of movement during infancy—plans to use the $100,000 to conduct an 18-month infant development study to develop tools for assessing atypical brain development earlier and more accurately. 

“The earlier we can identify atypical development, the earlier we can provide targeted rehabilitation and positively influence neuromotor development,” Smith said. 

Her research could mean autism, for example, would be detected earlier, and the infant’s development could be optimized thereafter.

“During infancy, the potential to have a positive impact on development is unparalleled,” Smith said. “Infants learn so much so quickly; their skills and abilities change drastically across weeks, even.”

For the study, Smith will recruit 30 typically developing and 15 prematurely born infants between the ages of 1 and 6 months old. She will collect full-day arm movement data from wearable sensors, brain function data from an electroencephalography cap and standard assessments of the infants’ reaching skills.

The data will allow Smith to relate the variables—amount and type of daily arm movements, amount and location of corresponding brain activity and standard assessments of reaching skills—to give researchers a better understanding of movement control and underlying brain development.

The data could support the development of full-day, in-home neonatal movement assessments as a screening tool for underlying brain development, Smith said.

The Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100-million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Since its launch in 2008, it has funded nearly 1,100 projects in more than 60 countries. Twice yearly, the initiative sets up research topics—varying from creating low-cost cell phone apps for health conditions to developing the next generation of condoms—and invites researchers to apply for a $100,00 Phase 1 grant, using an agile, accelerated process with a short two-page online application and no requirement for preliminary data.

At the end of the 18-month project, researchers can apply for a $1 million Phase 2 grant to continue their studies. There have only been 77 Phase 2 grants awarded worldwide.

Smith was surprised to see the Grand Challenges Explorations program calling for proposals so closely related to her career-long research interests, as previous topics have not included infant development. One of Round 13’s topics was “Explore New Ways to Measure Fetal and Infant Brain Development.”

“I read the announcement and thought, ‘That’s exactly the goal of my work!’” Smith said. “I was very impressed with how elegant and well-articulated the announcement was. They very clearly and succinctly stated the problem and roadblocks while requesting innovative, unrestricted solutions.”

Though Smith felt her chances were slim, given how difficult the current funding environment is and how many innovators across the globe submit applications for Grand Challenges Explorations—40,000 applications from 182 countries in its seven-year run—she applied anyway.

“I jokingly told her she might as well go and buy a lottery ticket, too,” said James Gordon, associate dean of the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy. “I’m really glad she did it, though. In all seriousness, this award is a recognition of the potential of Beth’s research to have significant societal impact.”

Smith attended Boston University, where she completed her master’s of science and doctor of physical therapy degrees. She left Boston to pursue her doctor of philosophy degree at the University of Michigan and then headed to the West Coast to Oregon Health & Science University for a postdoctoral fellowship in neurology. She joined the faculty of the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy in 2013 as an assistant professor of research and the director of the Infant Neuromotor Control Laboratory.

“I am inspired and encouraged every day by the people I work with at USC,” Smith said. “The support, intellectual curiosity and experience that exist here in the division are unmatched.”

Since its beginnings in 1945, the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy has been at the forefront of physical therapy research and education. It is the top-ranked physical therapy program in the nation, according to the U.S. News & World Report.

Click the following link to learn more about the Grand Challenges Explorations grants.