STEM trailblazer Vivian Smith honored with the Dr. Billy Richardson Award for Young Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) Researchers

For the strides she has made in her career, an Alcorn State University alumna was honored for her exemplary work as a scientific researcher.

Vivian Smith, a biosafety and biosecurity subject matter expert at Battelle Memorial Institute, was awarded the 2019 Dr. Billy Richardson Award for Young NBC Researchers in May. The award was established to recognize exceptional young leaders with a dedication to activities involving education and commitment to NBC defense.

Battelle, based in Columbus, Ohio, is a nonprofit corporation that conducts research and development, designs and manufactures products, and delivers critical services for government and commercial customers worldwide. The award, which is given by the NBC Industry Group, is an ode to Richardson dedicating 25 years of his life to developing modern chemical and biological defense programs.

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree from Alcorn in 2008 and a master’s degree in biotechnology with a concentration in biodefense from Johns Hopkins University. She also is certified as a specialist microbiologist with the National Registry of Certified Microbiologists by the American Society of Microbiology.

The Alcornite felt honored to be recognized for her contributions to her field.

“I was filled with pride and joy after learning I had won the award,” said Smith. “Of all the capable scientists in the nuclear, biological, and chemical industry, I was chosen for this incredible honor. This award is a huge recognition of the amazing work I do internationally and domestically. It has allowed me the opportunity to meet many individuals and companies that do similar work for future collaboration.”

One of the most fulfilling parts of Smith’s job is making a difference in other countries. Her work has led her to countries such as Kazakhstan, the Republic of Georgia, and currently in Vietnam, where she supports the Vietnam Ministry of Health and Department of Animal Health to help bring safer scientific practices to the country.

“It has been one of the most rewarding things I have done in my career. In the United States, we have many regulations and laws in place to govern research with highly infectious diseases. In many countries, these regulations and laws are in their infancy. Therefore, it feels amazing to be a part of enhancing and shaping the laws for an entire country. The decisions that I help to shape today will bring global biosecurity practices in place to protect individuals domestically and internationally.”

The journey that Smith has been on began with instant success. Shortly after graduating from Alcorn, she became the first African-American woman accepted into a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health’s National Biosafety and Biocontainment Training Program in Bethesda, Maryland. During her time there, she independently directed the operations of the NIH high and maximum biocontainment laboratories throughout the United States and performed program gap analyses focusing on biodefense and biosecurity related issues, among other things.

From there, she went on to become a mentor at a New York City-based non-profit organization that focuses on serving young girls in the area.

Although she is a trailblazer, being the first is the least of Smith’s concerns. She’s satisfied with the fact that she inspires others to be great.

“I have always desired to prevent future generations of young leaders from making the same mistakes I made during my undergraduate education and shortly afterward. It is a humbling thought to know that there are individuals that look to my work and my career for inspiration. I started mentoring a student when she was 13-years-old, and now she is a junior at Hampton University. Our relationship persists until this day. I have always told her and other students to understand their passion and go for it.”

As Smith continued to climb the ranks in her career, being the youngest and one of few women in her field brought on self-doubt, which is a battle that she had to face and conquer to be successful.

“I have been in positions that have been predominately held by people with more experience, so I would often feel intimidated when I walked into meetings as the youngest person and often, the only woman. I learned that I had to have confidence in myself and speak with authority because I knew I was the best person for the job.”

What helped Smith overcome her issues was remembering the foundation that her alma mater provided for her. Once she reflected on the advice of fellow Alcornites who helped jumpstart her success, she regained confidence.

“Alcorn is called the ‘Academic Resort” for a reason. There are so many professors and peers that are rooting for your success and helping to push you to the next level. It was a classmate that encouraged me to research fellowship opportunities when I was undecided on my next steps after graduation. It was a supportive professor, Dr. Leroy Johnson, who wrote a persuasive letter of recommendation to help support my application. He also followed up with my journey until the day he retired.

Smith will forever be grateful to Alcorn for setting her on the journey to pursue her passion.

“Alcorn taught me how to be a leader and have confidence in my skills as a professional. I am forever grateful for my experience at Alcorn and for the amazing life skills that were bestowed upon me during my time there.”