Mentor of Distinction
Dr. Francine Smith studies the critical adjustment period of newborns to life outside the womb. With the same care and patience she brings to her research, she nurtures the minds of her students, whether they are in grade eight, or completing post-doctoral degrees.
“One of my great joys is training students,” says Dr. Smith, who is a Professor in the Departments of Physiology & Biophysics/Medicine at the University of Calgary. “Teaching is a great source of satisfaction, including classroom teaching, but also passing on my scientific training to the next generation of scientists,” she says. As well as supervising graduate students, clinical fellows, and post-doctoral associates, Dr. Smith supervises undergraduates working on directed studies and laboratory projects, and teaches classes for medical and health sciences students. She is also the Graduate Coordinator for the Department of Medical Science, one of the largest graduate programs within the University of Calgary. Additionally, she is a past winner of the McLeod Distinguished Achievement Award for teaching excellence in the Faculty of Medicine.
Kidney physiology, Dr. Smith’s area of expertise, isn’t exactly a simple subject. Nevertheless she is able to engage her students by interacting with them in a non-threatening way, and encouraging them to express their opinions and understanding. She wants them to consider relevant questions and issues, and lets them know that getting the “right” answer is not a prerequisite for classroom participation.
Her enthusiasm for her subject also helps. “The science, itself, is my biggest inspiration,” says Dr. Smith, admitting that her students often tell her they know all about her love of kidney physiology, by the way she talks when she describes the kidney! Among various other functions, the kidney plays a vital role in regulating blood pressure as well as fluid balance. Many of these functions are altered during development, which is the focus of Dr. Smith’s research program.
“The physiology of the body is truly fascinating,” she says.
Dr. Smith hadn’t intended to pursue this area of medicine. Growing up in Sydney, Australia, she had studied piano as well as dance. But her parents had encouraged her to ask questions and be curious about nature, as well as the arts. Later, she attended the University of New South Wales, Sydney, in order to become a clinical psychologist. When she “stumbled” onto a physiology course, she was hooked, and decided to complete a double major in physiology and psychology. Like her siblings, she was destined for a career in science. A Ph.D. in perinatal physiology followed, and in 1987 she won a national scholarship that allowed her to travel to the United States to University of Iowa, Iowa City, to complete her post-doctoral training. The University of Calgary recruited Dr. Smith from the University of Iowa in 1991.
One of relatively few female professors, Dr. Smith considers reaching full professorship and maintaining an active and well-funded research program among her most significant achievements. Optimistic and energetic, she is an inspiring role model for the junior high school girls she mentors through Operation Minerva.
It is my pleasure to bring these young students through the laboratory. It shows them that there are options for women in science and engineering that they may not have considered, and perhaps will consider one day.
Like any good physiologist, however, Dr. Smith knows how to keep her life in balance. “Outside of science, a happy and healthy marriage and family are my biggest achievements,” she says.