Matthew J. Smith’s academic career was originally driven by his interest in how and why different neurological conditions affect the behavior and relationships of those affected. Initially, he planned to pursue a degree in biology, but soon realized that he was passionate about implementing social programs that could have a direct and positive impact on people’s lives. This goal led him to move from preparing for a career in medicine to pursuing degrees in psychology and social work that have guided his research journey ever since.
Smith earned her Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, School of Social Work, then completed a Translational Postdoctoral Fellowship in Neuroscience at the University of Washington at the St. Louis School of Medicine.
In 2017, Smith joined the University of Michigan School of Social Work as an associate professor and connected with a group of social work professors developing technology-enabled interventions. Smith focused on evaluating a virtual reality interview skills training program he helped develop in 2012 while an assistant professor at Northwestern University. The program simulates the experience of a job interview and provides a list of sample answers, guiding participants to the most employer-friendly answers.
The training tool initially aimed to help people with mental health issues that affected their ability to find employment. Through Smith’s collaborations, the tool has been applied to another group that could also benefit, young adults with autism.
“Young adults with autism find the job interview difficult to navigate and so I thought at the time, okay, we are developing this tool, why not also partner with young adults with autism to develop a version for the autism community.”
One of the most unique features of the Interview Skills Project is that the research team actively evaluates the program as it is implemented. This means that the team solicits feedback from project participants to optimize the user experience over time. Smith believes that for these programs to have an impact, they must be guided by those for whom they are designed.
“We need to adapt our process and try to improve the tools we have developed if they are not effective so that they can one day hopefully help people find jobs.”
Smith is also passionate about using his work to meet a diversity of audience needs. This means evaluating the impact of the program itself and the delivery system on the end-user experience among different target audiences.
Smith’s team is currently developing an additional tool aimed at training users to interact with customers, co-workers and supervisors once employed, which can be a challenging area for young adults with autism.
The connections Smith made throughout his studies in neuroscience and social work made his research possible. Through a contact he made with a student while presenting his work to UM’s Master of Social Work program, Smith was able to connect with administrators at the Michigan Department of Corrections. After receiving a grant from the National Institute of Justice (2019-MU-MU-004) and the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research (UL1TR002240), Smith applied the interview training program to another underserved community, those who return to society after their incarceration in correctional facilities in Jackson and Ionia.
Building partnerships is a crucial part of Smith’s research because he believes it improves the quality of the results and is a necessity in the practical work of implementing these tools through a network of committed, on-the-ground collaborators.
“The people you meet who are interested in implementing these types of programs are what make them possible. These are the staff and teachers who work directly with clients and connect them to research with real results.
To ensure that these programs will continue to be as effective as possible, Smith has established a Community Advisory Board and a Diversity Advisory Board, which are comprised of diverse groups of representatives from different communities.
“Our mission is to help people find jobs and keep those jobs, so we’re just trying to develop and test different ways to do that.”