Meet Behavioral Neuroscience Alum Major Carl Smith

November 10, 2023 - Shelly DeJong

Major Carl Smith is photographed in front of an American flag and the U.S. Army Medical Corps Guidon Flag. He wears his Army uniform and smiles at the camera.Major Carl Smith earned a PhD in Psychology in 2011, specializing in Behavioral Neuroscience. Shortly before graduating, he committed to joining the Army as a uniformed Research Psychologist (71F). From researching nerve agent intoxication to sleep restrictions on soldiers’ marksmanship, Dr. Smith now is the Associate Director for the Center of Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience. He shared with us recently about his career, how his behavioral-neuroscience background prepared him for his work, and what advice he has for students.  


Can you tell me about your career path after you earned your PhD at MSU?  

My first assignment after I completed my Ph.D. was at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD), where I led the Physiology & Immunology Branch and conducted my own research studying rodent models of nerve agent intoxication. From there, I moved to the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM) and led a number of projects including those examining the impact of sleep restriction on soldiers’ marksmanship performance and the effects of peripheral nerve stimulation on skill acquisition. The latter topic led me to a complete a one-year broadening assignment at the Food & Drug Administration, where I was a lead reviewer in the Center for Devices and Radiological Health with a focus on reviewing studies and marketing submissions for neurological and physical medicine devices.  

All of this work has led me to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. I started in July 2020 as the Director of the Research Transition Office. Both in my Director role and as scientist, we transitioned psychological health products directly to service members that included training and guidelines related to resilience, team cohesion, and suicide prevention. After two years in that role, I moved into the Associate Director role for the Center of Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience (CMPN) where I have oversight of six branches (including the Research Transition Office) that cover a wide range of topic related to sleep, blast injury, biomarker research, neuroprotection, and behavioral health.  

CMPN has six branches and over 140 high-performing scientists. Each branch has unique needs related to budgeting, contracting, scientific program management, personnel management, logistics, and information technology. One important job as a leader is to anticipate needs and obstacles as far in advance as possible and assist the staff with navigating these processes. In addition, as an officer, I also strive to develop and mentor subordinates so that future generations can continue the mission.  


How has your background in behavioral neuroscience informed your work? 

My background in behavioral neuroscience was directly relevant to my work in my first two roles. At USAMRICD, I was able to use my graduate experience studying the neurobiological basis of maternal behavior in rats when researching the unique effects of nerve agent therapeutics in female rodents. Not only was I familiar with relevant neurological systems but I also brought an understanding of the hormonal cycles that previously created variability in attempts to include female rodents into chemical defense research. At USARIEM, my behavioral neuroscience knowledge was critical for establishing the peripheral nerve stimulation program and providing the framework for how such stimulation could affect targets in the central nervous system. Although my assignments have varied, to include qualitative evaluations and developing resilience training for Soldiers, my background in behavioral neuroscience allows me to provide support for the branches in CMPN that focus on brain health and neurological interventions.  


A green graphic with text that says "In addition to pursuing your own scientific goals that you have cultivated over the years, take time to look for the big problems in society that need to be addressed. You might be drawn to a specific psychological topic, but I have found in my career that I'm most fulfilled when I'm using my core skills to solve the largest problems in front of me." This quote is attributed to Major Carl Smith, a MSU Behavioral Neuroscience alumni.How did your education at MSU psychology uniquely prepare you for your career?  

The MSU psychology program (and associated Neuroscience program) certainly prepared me for a career in behavioral neuroscience but more importantly taught me how to design rational solutions to problems and communicate in a persuasive manner. My graduate advisor, Dr. Joseph Lonstein, was very focused on ensuring that his students could effectively write a report and deliver a presentation. In the Army, being able to clearly communicate your intentions and ideas is critical for driving change and delivering products to service members. 


What do you love about what you do?  

The most rewarding part of this job is being able to transition a product your team has developed directly to the service members, and then to see that product have a positive impact on their lives. Crossing the finish line in this manner, however, does not happen every day. On a day-to-day basis, the strongest motivating force comes from my coworkers. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research  consists of a military, civilian, and contractor personnel, and among the reasons for working here, everyone shares the common goal of improving the health of the service member. I believe this quality encourages teamwork and problem-solving, which makes work enjoyable (even during challenging times). 


What keeps you engaged in your work?  

An aspect of serving in the Army that really keeps me engaged is the variety of work I encounter. One week I’ll spend most of my time conducting performance reviews, facilitating contracting actions, and solving budget issues while the next week I’ll be in the field conducting a study on blast dosimeters with Army combat engineers. Then I’ll come back and spend another week (or month) analyzing data and writing manuscripts. After a few years, it is time to move to a new duty station where I’ll learn something completely new. I enjoy the different requirements of the job and pace of change. Knowing that my work is having an impact on soldiers’ lives, however, is the largest factor that keeps me engaged. 

 Broadly, I hope the work from our team will prepare service members for the future fight and ensure that they return safe and healthy from deployment. From a specific psychological and brain health perspective, this means ensuring they have the required knowledge and material products to be cognitively ready for conflict and to remain resilient during stressful operations. Furthermore, should their mental well-being or health suffer during their duties, I want the products from our work to help them recover quickly and hasten their return to duty. 


Any advice to current Psychology students who are looking to make an impact? 

In addition to pursuing your own scientific goals that you have cultivated over the years, take time to look for the big problems in society that need to be addressed. The important skills you’re learning include the processes of thinking, synthesizing information, communicating, and persuading others. You might be drawn to a specific psychological topic, but I have found in my career that I’m most fulfilled when I’m using my core skills to solve the largest problems in front of me. This is true even when I’m venturing into an unfamiliar field.