Schools & Education

Like Father, Like Daughter

Natalie Smith, Ph.D. follows her father’s path to engineering while earning two graduate degrees

Call this hometown girl Dr. Smith, please. Fourth-generation San Benito County native Natalie Smith has just joined an exclusive club of women with doctorates of philosophy in aeronautics and astronautics.

She traces her Recalde Basque ancestry to early settlers in Panoche with Smith and Klauer grandparents as well. Natalie left for Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo after graduating from San Benito High School, determined to study aeronautical engineering. “My father is an engineer so I grew up around engineers and air shows since my time in strollers,” she says. Natalie thrived on science fair projects where hands-on problem-solving was required. She recalls good teachers in both mathematics and English throughout her K-12 years here at home in San Benito County.

After San Benito High School, Natalie studied aerospace engineering at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Then immediately after graduation she started a master’s program at Purdue University, coaxed to make the move to far-away Indiana to study with Nicole Key, a young academic not yet tenured. The risk paid off, for Natalie embraced with full energy the fascinating world of aerodynamics, turbomachinery, and propulsion. “My mentor Dr. Key,” she says, “was an incredible powerhouse. In fact, today she brings in the highest level of research income for the department at Purdue.”

Dr. Smith comes from a long history of strong women. Her academic achievements evidence this, to be sure. Her dissertation title reads "An Experimental Study on the Effects of Blade Row Interactions on Aerodynamic Loss Mechanisms in a Multistage Compressor." She even managed to send word out about the essence of her dissertation, all in a Tweet: "The blade rows in axial compressors are always in conversation with one another, sometimes it’s productive, and sometimes it’s not." 

With academic concentration in rotating machines and propulsion, it seems only fitting she excels in cycling too. Throughout college and doctoral studies, Dr. Smith has cycled her way to national competitive levels on race road, cyclocross, and mountain bikes. “I placed 19th overall at Collegiate Road National Championships last year and then walked in graduation the next weekend,” she said.

Dr. Smith worked her way through school, experience she brings to her position as research engineer with the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, Texas where she supports research projects in the Rotating Machinery Dynamics Section. “I work with a group of great people; everyone loves their job,” she muses. At the institute, Natalie enjoys lab work on projects ranging from automobile to jet to rocket propulsion on a campus of 2,500 employees. The bonus is a large group of cyclists among her colleagues who ride before their work begins in the morning. Texas weather permitting?

While she does miss weather, mustard fields and green hills of February in San Benito County, she came to appreciate the beauty of West Lafayette, Indiana, home of Purdue. “There’s something magical about having snow,” Dr. Smith says. Certainly, she has noted the immense differences in weather compared to her hometown, but she has also had to get used to the size of San Antonio at 1.5 million residents. Accustomed to small town Hollister and college towns, she has had to adjust to knowing only a few people. “I only know 20 people in town [San Antonio] but I actually ran into someone I know at the grocery store! It felt like home,” she says.

Asked what she would advise college bound students in San Benito County, Dr. Smith made the following recommendations: Start at a California State University campus, not U.C., because the overall costs are lower. Once in graduate school, especially engineering, students may find graduate assistant and fellowship positions to defray tuition and living expenses but certainly not at the luxury level. She urges students to pay equal attention to their science material and writing skills because competition for financial support depends on well written proposals as well as grades.

Dr. Smith looks forward to visiting home, but in the meantime stays connected with best friend and brother, Aaron. “We communicate one way or another almost every day,” she says. 

Lois Locci

A Hollisterian since 1999 (and a Silicon Valley escapee), Dr. Locci taught English and Intercultural Communication at De Anza College in Cupertino for years before adding a second career as chair of the education department of UC Extension, providing professional training in four counties and three countries. Also at UC, Dr. Locci led the development of Advanced Placement® and honors courses for the University of California College Prep Online until retiring in 2012. She served a four-year term as Trustee for Gavilan Joint Community College District and currently serves on the board of BenitoLink. She lives with her extended family in "Southside Valley."