Skip to main content

The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Addiction Researcher Who Wants to Translate Science for a Broad Audience

For the month of April we're profiling the individuals who made our inaugural list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young men and women we predict will have a serious impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day here at Pacific Standard.
The entrance to the administrative center of the University of Cambridge. (Photo: McAnt/Wikimedia Commons)

The entrance to the administrative center of the University of Cambridge. (Photo: McAnt/Wikimedia Commons)

Dana Smith, 26, Psychology

“I was always interested,” Dana Smith says, “in what makes people tick, why we act and think the way we do.”

Smith, who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, thought she wanted to become a therapist to better understand people. “But,” she says, “I quickly realized that I was more interested in the mechanisms behind our behaviors, which lay in our brains, and that perhaps I could have a broader impact through research.”

(Photo: Dana Smith)


After graduating from the University of Southern California Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, Smith jumped the pond to get her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Cambridge. Her research there focused on drug addiction, and she wrote her dissertation about why some people get dangerously attached to mind-altering substances while others can dabble recreationally without becoming dependent. She found that differences in the brain are to blame, and her results got a lot of press coverage, including in the New York Times. 

Smith says that her Ph.D. advisor, Karen Ersche, “taught me the importance of careful, rigorous, methodical research.” Being a woman in science, Smith added, “it was fantastic having a strong female role model to look up to.”

Eventually, Smith says, “I hope that we will solve the problem of addiction by providing more efficacious treatments, as well as doing away with the stigma that so often accompanies it by focusing on harm reduction rather than criminalization.”

These days, Smith is veering away from research and toward writing. “There are so many amazing results coming out of the lab,” she says, “but if we can't translate these discoveries into meaningful policy changes or communicate these findings to the wider public, then they don't do us much good.”

To that end, Smith has reported on psychological findings for the Guardian, Nature, Scientific American Mind, and other places, in turns promoting and critiquing new ideas. Her knowledge of what it takes to put out peer-reviewed research and her ability to translate academic jargon have gotten her byline under recent headlines such as “How a Pregnant Mother’s Diet Could Change a Child’s Brain” and “Anxiety About Certain Things Can Be Hereditary” (both for the Atlantic).

One of her most commented-on pieces, published in the Guardian, was a take-down of the recent sloppy claim that Oreo cookies are as addictive as cocaine. “No. No, they're not,” she wrote. “Just because something is pleasurable and causes a relevant reward area of your brain to light up does not mean that it is addictive.” She went on to call out the researchers who published the fluffy study for not having tested its hypothesis. (Part of Smith’s Cambridge research focused on binge eating—she used MRI scans of eating-disordered brains to determine why some people have a dysfunctional relationship with food.)

“Oftentimes science is seen as scary or confusing or even boring,” Smith says. “My goal is to convey the really exciting and cool stuff in a way that everyone can benefit and learn from.”

See our complete 2014 list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 here.