Grad Students Take on Nature in Reality TV Series

Chasing Nature contestants Matt Johannes and Sophia Santillan in Sydney, Australia.

Four Pratt graduate students got a reality check this fall, in more ways than one. The mechanical engineers competed in three episodes of Animal Planet’s new reality TV series Chasing Nature, which is set to premier on Dec. 4. Each week, the program challenges a team of four students to design and build a mechanical device that mimics what an animal can do naturally.

Selected from a pool of about 130 students representing 16 schools, the Duke participants spent a week in and around Sydney, Australia, testing their creativity and technical savvy against the everyday feats of the animal kingdom, ranging from insects to primates. By all accounts, the experience offered the students an eye-opening view of television production, a test of their engineering and fabrication skill and -- perhaps most coveted -- a free trip to Australia, all courtesy of Beyond Productions.

Taking a chance

The opportunity first came to the students’ attention through an email sent out to the Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science department. After much debate, they and a handful of others decided to apply.

“At first, I deleted the email; I thought it was out of reach,” said Jessica McClay, who has since received her master’s degree. Then she realized it was, if nothing else, a chance to practice her interviewing skills and organize her resume, she said.

“But, the biggest initial reason for applying – why not?”

Within a week of turning in their applications, a casting director arrived for interviews where applicants said they were asked about their pet peeves, how they worked in groups, how they confront situations and so on. And then they waited, for months.

When the calls finally did come, 3rd year MEMS graduate student Sophia Santillan and 5th year graduate student Matthew Johannes -- both of whom also completed their undergraduate work at Duke – found themselves with just three weeks before they were expected in Sydney, and with little idea of what to prepare for.

“They wanted to keep it a secret, so we had almost no idea what we would be doing,” said Johannes, who comes from Seattle-area, Wash. “All we knew is that we’d be creating designs to mimic nature, or some natural act. To see if we could do it better; if we could compete with nature.”

The challenge

Once there, the pair received their challenge: they would have to build a gigantic spider web while suspended in midair. The web also had to be functional, they said. It would need to entrap a 40-pound “fly” launched from a couple hundred feet away by a kind of medieval catapult called a trebuchet.

Matt Johannes spins a web.

“We had to build it like a spider would -- while hanging in the air,” said Santillan, whose hometown is Amarillo, Texas. "It was really a question of materials. It had to be something we could carry up with us.”

As for what exactly they ended up using, "I think that's a 'tune in and see' question," she said.

McClay’s group was the next to go. Their challenge: to butt "heads" like a bighorn ram.

“The ram’s uniqueness is their ability to butt heads without sustaining brain damage,” she said. “We had to build heads complete with a fluid-cushioned ‘brain’ that could sustain a major impact.”

The prime materials were fiberglass, whoopee cushions and mayonnaise, said the Edinboro, Pa., native. The heads were mounted on dune buggies, and later cars, and slammed together at forces meant to replicate those experienced by rams.

From left: Kurt Wulff and special effects guru Dave Goldie with team orangutan's final product.

A few weeks later it was Stockton, Ill., native Kurt Wulff’s turn. His team took on our cousin, the orangutan, and their knack for (literally) hanging around and swinging from vine to vine. His group had to design a tool to successfully cross a 100-foot long "vine" (actually a cable) stretched between 60-foot tall platforms across a natural estuary.

"The first day they asked us to try crossing the cable on our own," Wulff said. "We made it maybe 20 or 30 feet when the goal was 100. It proved we couldn't do it. We had to engineer a way."

The contestants said that their education and experience prepared them well, but completing their missions in the time allotted proved a challenge.

“We were limited in work days,” said McClay. “Our task wasn’t inherently difficult, but the situation made it difficult. There was an element of do or die."

Engineering television

While the Duke students and their teammates from other universities each spent a little over a week in Australia, the first weekend was spent recovering as best they could from jet lag and sightseeing. McClay’s group tried their hands at surfing on Bondi beach and Santillan and Johannes found a place where they could get some mean fish and chips. The groups also managed to squeeze in some rock-climbing.

Jessica McClay (far left) and teammates on the set of Chasing Nature.

On Monday, the first work day, teams received their tasks and quickly came up with designs. After a day spent “on location,” filming background material for the show at the zoo or the auto park or catapulting watermelons, depending on the assigned task, the teams were left with little more than two days to build their designs before the final test on Friday. What time they did have was further limited by the demands of television.

“Sometimes we had to do stuff five times over again so that they could film it from every angle and get all the right shots,” said Wulff, who is also in his 5th year.

“Engineering for TV is very different from engineering in the real world,” McClay added. “A half-hour’s worth of work might take two hours to film,” a reality that added significantly to the engineering challenge.

“You realize pretty quickly the value of simplicity,” she said. “In the amount of time we had, you really had to prioritize your objectives. For example, function might be more important than durability, or you might have to choose reliability over aesthetic appeal. You had to focus on a couple of features and make it work.”

To ensure that the show could play out with a compelling story, the engineers also had to swallow their pride on a few occasions.

“As engineers, you don’t want to screw up on purpose,” said Johannes. “But you find out reality TV is not so real. You have to make it exciting.”

So, was it all worth it, you might ask? Absolutely, they all agreed.

“The experience gave me a renewed sense of the spirit of engineering,” McClay said. “It reminded me that ‘hey, you can build something,’ even with limited time. I hope it might recruit kids who see it and get into building things. Most of all, I hope it’s fun.”

Animal Planet is expected to premier the eight episode series on Dec. 4, when McClay will make Duke’s ramming debut. Team Johannes and Santillan will take on spiders on episode three Jan. 10, followed by Wulff’s orangutan impression on episode six Feb. 7.

Tune in to find out just how well they measured up – or the made-for-TV version, anyway.