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Ryan Smith pictured smiling behind a brick wall background

Ryan Smith says he admires the service-oriented mission of the people he’s met at Carolina. They have an “energy and passion to improve and continue learning,” he said. (photo by Donn Young)

A drive to serve and achieve

Chancellor’s Science Scholar Ryan Smith helps make science and technology accessible for underrepresented middle school students.

Chancellor’s Science Scholar Ryan Smith of Durham wants to learn all he can about eye diseases. His interest in the topic is personal.

“My granddad has glaucoma and cataracts,” said Smith, a sophomore biology major pursuing minors in chemistry and statistics. “My dad has received an early diagnosis that he likely will have glaucoma … I want to learn more about these diseases to try to help people.”

Smith got off to a great start with Chancellor’s Science Scholars in 2020, which featured a six-week virtual immersion program called Summer EXCELerator before his first year. He then completed his first year at Carolina online due to the pandemic.

The students in the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program, which is part of Honors Carolina, are chosen for academic excellence, interest in STEM programs and careers, and a commitment to diversity, leadership and community involvement. The scholarship provides $10,000 for North Carolina residents, renewable for four years, plus research opportunities and leadership training.

Smith got a taste of leadership early on through the BOOST (Building Opportunities and Overtures in Science and Technology) Program at Duke University, which seeks to make science and technology accessible for underrepresented middle school students.

As a student in the program in eighth grade, he and other peers visited the Duke neuroscience department, where they got to handle human brains.

“You see how heavy it is, feel it and see the gray matter. They told us everything about the brain, that it is where memory happens,” he said.

Smith became a BOOST coach in high school and continues to serve the organization. He has shown seventh-graders how to make ice cream in a Ziplock bag, taught the science behind fingerprinting and how DNA works.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Smith sought ways to connect with the Carolina community.

He had a data analytics internship this past summer with Innovate Carolina, a program that facilitates social and economic impact projects. There he analyzed how many startups the program has nurtured since its inception.

“I’ve helped Innovate Carolina show what they’ve been doing, why it’s important and why we should continue to pursue [helping startups] in the future,” Smith said.

As assistant director of academic advising and registration for undergraduate Student Government, he has met with deans who oversee advising, staff advisers and students. Over the next year, he’d like to convene groups of international, athletic, military and other students to brainstorm about how advising could better meet their needs as part of his work with Student Government’s executive branch.

Biology lecturer Noelle Romero, Smith’s coordinator and mentor in the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program, is impressed with his service to Student Government and how much he accomplished during his first year.

“Ryan works diligently to solve any problem he encounters while also tackling schoolwork,” she said. “His altruistic nature, resiliency and strength of character are traits we ask all our scholars to emulate.”

As he dives into the fall semester, Smith said he is excited about being on campus for the first time.

“I’m ready to meet the rest of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars [in person], make new friends and experience college life … going to lunch together, walking and talking between classes, maybe joining a club sport.”

Smith also was accepted into several universities but said Carolina seemed like the right fit.

“I like the people I’ve met,” he said. “They all want to do better for themselves and the University, and I really like that energy, that passion to improve and continue learning.”

By Laura J. Toler ’76