Angela Smith

Angela Smith is an associate professor in the Department of Urology within the UNC School of Medicine and a recipient of the 2020 Hettleman Award for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement. She studies how to improve the lives of patients with bladder cancer by amplifying patient voices in research and clinical care.

Angela Smithphoto courtesy of UNC Health
October 12th, 2020

Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A: From my earliest memory, a doctor. Coming from a family of musicians, I’m not quite sure what fascinated me about the field, but if I had to guess, it all started with my pediatrician Dr. Lezek. He was an older man, kind and calm. Even as a child, I remember watching him listen intently to my mother’s concerns — then look pensively out the window and calmly suggest a solution. I have always been drawn to that form of problem-solving, and I love that part of medicine.

But that’s not all of it. I also love the humanity. I enjoy meeting new people, learning about their family and culture, and sharing in the emotions that make us uniquely human. During my early years, I grew up in my grandmother’s beauty salon. I listened to stories and watched my “baba,” as I called her, interact with her customers. It was there that I learned how to listen and develop trust.

Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

A: During medical school, my friends and family would ask me, “What kind of doctor are you going to be?” My unwavering answer was always, “I’m not sure — but definitely not a surgeon.” I surprised myself during my third year of medical school when I realized I loved surgery. I was drawn to the ability to work with my hands. It reminded me of music — a combination of technique and art.

My surgery rotation ended with a short two-week stint in urology. I recall my first day in Dr. Carson’s men’s health clinic, meeting men who knew him extremely well over the years and who trusted him with their most private issues. I realized that this field was what I had been searching for.

Angela Smith with her husband and two daughters

Smith loves spending time with her husband and two daughters.

Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

A: There’s nothing like being in the operating room and using an instrument in an innovative way to solve a problem. During training, I recall observing that a large proportion of patients would end up readmitted following bladder removal surgery. Were readmissions preventable? If so, which ones? How could one prevent them? I worked toward a solution by incorporating the patient voice into the equation.

I first approached patients and caregivers who had been readmitted. What was their experience? I published my findings and used the common themes that emerged to form the foundation of a mobile health intervention that would help these patients who struggled at home following a major surgery. Through this experience, and many others that followed, I have come to embrace the process of problem-solving, not necessarily the result.

Q: Describe your research in 5 words.

A: Engaging patients for better care.

Q: What are your passions outside of research?

A: Since I was young, I have had a passion for music and enjoyed playing violin in the orchestra and piano and organ in our church. I became a music major at UNC, which was one of the best decisions of my life because it began my career at an institution that values patient care and faculty growth, and I met my husband of 16 years. I still play with my family – there is no greater joy than watching my daughters learn to play violin, experiment with the piano and drums, and holding “family jam sessions” together.

Aside from music, I also enjoy organization. From cleaning out the garage to reorganizing the kids’ toys to solving complex academic problems, I see all of these as puzzles. I enjoy the challenge of transforming a “mess” into something efficient, effective, and valuable.

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See Smith speak more about her research during the Hettleman Talks during 2020 University Research Week.