As a physical therapist, Dr. Smith is deeply interested in movement. Specifically, her lab studies babies’ movements and movement patterns, looking for clues to predict an infant’s developmental trajectory—and for ways to create earlier, more effective interventions for those at risk for developmental disabilities.
“Babies practice a lot before they become skilled at reaching and grasping objects, sitting, crawling, walking,” she explains. “One of our questions is, well, how much practice and what type of practice is needed to learn to sit, to crawl, to reach? We don’t know that, and that’s a fundamental question for therapists who want to provide early intervention.”
To answer these questions, she and her team use wearable technology—including Fitbit-like sensors for babies’ wrists and ankles, head-mounted eye gaze tracking, and a 32-channel EEG system and infant headcaps to analyze babies’ movements and movement-related brain activity. Parents also complete smartphone-based questionnaires. These technologies allow the team to measure infant movement and behavior across several days in a baby’s home environment.
Dr. Smith joined CHLA from USC last summer, attracted in part by The Saban Research Institute's “Best Starts to Life” strategic theme. She now co-leads the Best Starts to Life research collaborative with Ashwini Lakshmanan, MD, MS, MPH, and Douglas Vanderbilt, MD, MS. “All aspects of infant development—motor, cognitive, social—interact with each other,” Dr. Smith says. “By collaborating across disciplines, we can study and support infant development in a very holistic way.”
Originally from Michigan, she herself was an at-risk baby. Born at 28 weeks’ gestation, she spent her first three months in a neonatal intensive care unit. “I remember going for follow-up visits at a children’s hospital and thinking the therapy room was fun,” she says. “Apparently I never changed my mind!” Today, her fun activities outside of work include outdoor physical fitness, playing golf and enjoying the food and fun that Los Angeles has to offer.