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A Look at a Leader: Jodi Smith, PhD, MD

Blog A Look at a Leader: Jodi Smith, PhD, MD

Throughout her 16 years at Riley, Dr. Smith has maintained her passion for her work. “I’ve always loved children,” she says. “Kids want to get better no matter what, and we can do things in kids’ brains that we could never do in adults’ brains because children’s brains have so much plasticity and rewire so well that even after extensive surgery, their function can often return.”


“Growing up, I had no intention of going into medicine,” says Jodi Smith, Ph.D., M.D., pediatric neurosurgeon at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “I had a full ride to college with a softball scholarship and I wanted to become a physical education teacher and a coach—that was my goal in life.” But that all changed when Dr. Smith asked her high school physiology instructor for a recommendation for college. He said he wouldn't give her one—even though she got straight A’s and was the valedictorian of her high school class—unless she considered becoming a doctor and going the pre-med route. Dr. Smith had been so focused on athletics, she hadn’t considered anything else. But her instructor’s suggestion opened her eyes to a new and exciting possibility. “I looked into it and I thought it was a pretty good idea, so that’s what I did.”

As an undergraduate at Weber State University in her home state of Utah, Dr. Smith was drawn to studying the pituitary and pineal glands in the brain. “I was very interested in scientific research and I thought that would be a great thing to do,” says Dr. Smith. So after college, she went to the University of Utah and earned her Ph.D. in anatomy with a focus on the early development of the brain and spinal cord.

 Certified Child Life Specialist Krista Hauswald

When she was getting ready to defend her dissertation, however, she had another important conversation that would change the course of her career. In the lab one day, a pediatric neurosurgery fellow came in and observed Dr. Smith deftly working on the nervous system of a tiny chick embryo under a microscope. He said, “Wow, if you can do that in a chick embryo, you could be a pediatric neurosurgeon.” Once again, Dr. Smith considered the suggestion, and after learning about pediatric neurosurgery, she says she “fell in love with the whole idea.”

It was a long road, but Dr. Smith stuck with it. She stayed at the University of Utah to complete a postdoctoral research fellowship, earn an M.D. (she also became the first woman to graduate first in her class at the University of Utah Medical School), and complete a one-year surgery internship followed by a five-year neurosurgery fellowship. She ultimately completed her training with a one-year pediatric neurosurgery fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School. There, she learned pioneering surgical techniques to treat various neurological conditions including epileptic seizures and Moyamoya disease, which is a rare disease that can cause strokes in children and results from narrowing of the blood vessels at the base of the brain.

In 2000, Dr. Smith brought those surgical techniques and her extensive experience to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. “I wanted to develop a seizure surgery program and build up Riley’s pediatric neurosurgery team,” she says. To that end, she took on cases that ranged from epilepsy and Moyamoya disease to brain tumors and spinal cord injuries—and in the process, Indiana became her home and her patients became her family. “The people of Indiana are just amazing. And when I take my patients into the operating room, they become a part of my family—these children then become my kids,” says Dr. Smith, who notes that even after their treatment is finished, she is often in touch with her patients at holidays, birthdays, and graduations.

Throughout her 16 years at Riley, Dr. Smith has maintained her passion for her work. “I’ve always loved children,” she says. “Kids want to get better no matter what, and we can do things in kids’ brains that we could never do in adults’ brains because children’s brains have so much plasticity and rewire so well that even after extensive surgery, their function can often return.”

When Dr. Smith isn’t at the hospital, she is biking or at church. She feels strongly that her faith has carried her through every crossroad in her life. “The most important thing I have in my life has been God. He’s helped me throughout everything I’ve done,” she says. She’s also the director of a spiritual girl’s camp in the summer. “I believe in trying to help our youth and supporting them, and giving back to my community,” she says.

When it comes to her work community, she is just as generous: “I love Riley and my colleagues here. It’s a great hospital,” says Dr. Smith. “I put my heart and soul into this program because I believe in it and I want the kids here to do well.”

-- By Rachel Rabkin Peachman

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