A Blue Devil Family

4/16/24 Podcast

When Becky Simmons first got to Duke in the 1990s, she wouldn’t have guessed it then, but a future awaited her that included graduate school, a husband, two daughters, professorship and ties that would bind them all to Duke for decades.

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A Blue Devil Family



Jamal Michel: This is Rate of Change, a podcast from Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, dedicated to the ingenious ways that engineers are solving society’s toughest problems. I’m Jamal Michel.

When Becky Simmons touched down at Duke in the ’90s, she may not have known it yet, but there was a future here for her, and not just in engineering.

Duke is already one big family, but Simmons would quite literally be raising her own on campus. She and her husband, Neal, have two daughters, both of whom basically grew up in their labs. And I talked to them about the ways Duke became a home away from home.

Becky, thank you so much for joining us. You’ve got your daughters with you—I don’t want to jump into that just yet. I do want to ask you to tell us a little about you and your relationship with Duke, what you do here, and essentially, where you’re at.

Becky Simmons: Sure. Thank you for having me. I am Becky Simmons and I’m a professor of the practice of mechanical engineering and material science at Duke.

And I have been here now almost 30 years, which seems crazy to me. But I came as an undergrad in 1996 and I came to visit Duke. There was someone else from my high school that was a student here. I came and did the prospective tours, spent the night and fell in love as most of our students do on that first visit.

And I decided to do mechanical engineering and I stayed with that as an undergrad, had amazing professors, met some fantastic people, and really enjoyed my classes. And then I continued with my PhD here, and then I was teaching an intro computer science class, EGR 103, for a couple years with Professor Michael Gustafson, a well-loved professor here at Duke, and my daughters were young at that time. So, I have two daughters, Ella and Emily, and it was just absolutely fantastic. We’d bring Ella and Emily into campus and into labs is what we’ll probably talk about in a little bit. And I guess the rest is history, as they say, just can’t get rid of me here.

Jamal Michel: And you haven’t been here just for a couple of years, a couple of decades. So that’s a lot of change. So, you’ve seen things come and go, you’ve seen things transform. What have been some of the more like, you know, say you’re walking around campus now and you stop and you’re just like, “holy cow, so much has changed” and it hits you.

Becky Simmons: I do have moments of that, particularly I think with construction, cause the buildings are just right there, so obvious. And some haven’t like, we’re in the Bryan Center right now in the recording booth, and I don’t think Bryan Center has changed that much.

But when I was an undergrad, I think it was my first year here—it was the first year. It was all first-year students on East Campus, so that’s been going on now since 1996. And I think that’s a nice thing. But again, just like the buildings, the new engineering building, the co-lab—I walk into the co-lab and every time I walk in, I’m like, this is so amazing.

Very different than what we had. But I will say one thing that hasn’t changed is the enthusiasm and excitement of the students. And that is an amazing thing. an incredible thing. I feel very lucky.

Jamal Michel: You know that the time you’ve spent has been significant and when you think about people who have been in an institution for a long time, there’s this like—there’s often this hard line that they draw between their academic life and their personal life. But it looks like Duke has really been influential and informative in your life in many ways, so much so that your daughters, when they first got here, what was that like? What was the first visit like for you and them?

Becky Simmons: So, they probably don’t even remember it because I think—I want to say their first days were probably three or four days after they were born. I was back teaching the week Emily was born and I don’t think she came in that soon. But a lot of times, I’d bring them in and with Neal and I working here together, sometimes there were handoffs, or I remember EGR 121, which is a first-year mechanical engineering design class. The lab space used to be on East Campus, and we had this great spot in the back of Southgate. And our lab times were 6 to 10 PM. And so, I’d pick up Ella and Emily from school, pick up some dinner, and we would go and be in lab really late.

And I always said it was an incredible experience for both Ella and Emily. But I also think that the students and my teaching assistants enjoyed it too. There were some benefits because when you’re on a college campus, a lot of times you’re seeing, and I remember this as an undergrad, this uniformity in age.

So, it seems like everyone around you is 19, 20 plus or minus one or two years and to see a five- or six-year-old, an eight-year-old and an older person, that being me, I think was a good break. And we always try to have students, whether it was teaching assistants, sometimes classes come over to our house too.

So, the students would see Ella and Emily in lab. And they’d also often see them at our home too, but for Ella, Emily, there was an expectation. They had to behave, and they had to help. So, if the students were working on something, Ella, Emily, for the most part, we’re tasked with needing to show or help so that was always a lot of fun.

I learned to solder very early on, and many of the freshmen did not know how to solder. And so, mom would go tell me…’go help those freshmen learn how to solder.’ And then it would be like the seven-year-old teaching the college freshmen.

Emily Simmons

Jamal Michel: And we have Ella and Emily here. Thank you so much for joining us. Ella, can you tell us a little about yourself?

Ella Simmons: Yeah. Hi, I’m Ella. I’m Becky Simmons’s daughter. I am a freshman at Princeton right now. Grew up on Duke campus. Lots of stories here. Very much feels like coming home when I visit campus.

Jamal Michel: And Emily, what about you?

Emily Simmons: Hi my name’s Emily and I’m currently a junior at Durham Academy.

Jamal Michel: Very cool. Do either of y’all have a particular first memory? I know your mother was talking about things happening way before you could remember, but is there anything that stands out as like, “Oh, wow, I’m at Duke” or are you even aware of what Duke is at that time when you’re so young, you know?

Ella Simmons: I don’t think I had any awareness that it was an abnormal childhood to be growing up on a college campus. I thought that was pretty much what everyone did. As little as I can remember, I’ve been here. Lots of memories in Hudson growing up in the basement, lots of memories there. But no memories particularly. Just Being here more than I was at home often, very much interacting with the students, lots of fun memories.

Emily Simmons: My distinct memories from, like, childhood here are those 6 to 10 PM labs, because 10 PM feels like so late when you’re in elementary school. And I just, like, by the end of those days I’d be getting so tired.

And I just like remember my interactions with the TAs and the students and I learned to solder very early on. And many of the freshmen did not know how to solder. And so, mom would go tell me, she’d be like, “go help those freshmen learn how to solder.” And then it would be like the seven-year-old teaching the college freshmen.

Ella Simmons: I think that put a couple of the engineering students in their place a little bit.

Jamal Michel: Yeah, very humbling. Wow, that’s really cool. Have those moments informed where you’re at right now, where you’re planning to go? Did those like sort of plant the seeds in terms of your interests academically?

Ella Simmons: Absolutely. Both of us want to be engineers, so clearly, we can’t escape it—very much grown up in the engineering lifestyle. But I think also having had some experience on a different college campus as a college student, which was not the experience I had here [Duke]—I had a very VIP, you know, faculty’s daughter experience here, it was really amazing and remarkable to be on the other side.

And I know a lot of my peers struggled with that. Going to college is a big new thing, but it felt so much like home to go to college and experience that. So, it was very nice to grow up with this experience. It was very nice to grow up on a college campus because it feels so much like home, even though it’s a new campus and new life and everything.

Emily Simmons: I can’t speak to the college aspect yet, but I think it’s good that I wanted to be an engineer because both my parents have very heavily encouraged that, as they’re both engineers, but I think having that early interaction with teaching students and being in an environment where they’re like doing team projects or whatever has helped me now.

I’m part of DARC SIDE, which is our school’s robotics club and working in that environment where I do have to collaborate and teach new students and everything—I think it was really helpful to have that exposure so early on.

Jamal Michel: Do either of you remember like the last time you were on campus, at least that last time, you know, you weren’t going to be back for a while because you’re going back to school or, you know, you’re just like, we’ve got other things going on now, this is probably the last time we’re going to see so and so for some time.

Ella Simmons: I’m very lucky, my best friend goes here. So, I get to visit her all the time, even while I’m home—cannot escape Duke, even as I go off and leave home. But I think a big change for Emily, and I was, we were at Duke so much and then COVID hit and of course we had to stay home from high school, but in a weird sense, we also had to stay home from our second home, which was Duke.

And mom wasn’t going in as much anymore. She couldn’t go in for any of her classes. So, we were at home and that was very unique because we did have those last moments on Duke campus for like a year and a half.

And we didn’t even realize it at that point, like most students and teachers had with COVID too.

Jamal Michel: Thinking about being both a professor and a parent, those are two roles in which you’re teaching, and you’ve got to juggle and change these hats every now and again. What’s that like? You’ve got your daughters in that space. You’ve got your students in this space. Um, What’s it like juggling both of those roles?

Becky Simmons: I actually think it’s helpful. Each role helps the other in some sense—being a parent and having gone through that experience, Ella and Emily growing up and seeing them—I have empathy for the students, right? I can’t completely understand. I’m now much older than they are, but Ella and Emily helped keep me a little bit grounded, a little bit more “popular culture” with some of the things that maybe are going on, even with COVID, right?

Going through COVID, my experience as, at that time a 40 plus year old is different than an 18 or 19 or 20-year-old, and even though Ella and Emily were younger, having talked with them helps me potentially understand a little bit better what my students are going through, and hopefully be a better advocate, advisor, mentor, teacher to them.

And then I try to bring home a lot of the lessons from Duke to Ella and Emily. And they listen, they’re very nice and they listen to me. But sometimes I have to not be in the teacher role all the time at home—to just be the mom.

Jamal Michel: That insider knowledge is helpful I’m sure but could also be overwhelming.

Becky Simmons: It can be too much at times.

Jamal Michel: So, Ella, you’re at Princeton right now. Was there a sort of collective gasp when you did not go to Duke?

Ella Simmons: Well, as mom mentioned, we’ve had students over to the house since I can remember. I remember these big dinner parties, and the first thing that all the students would always ask me is: “So, are you going to come to Duke?”

And my response, even as a little kid, was always, “definitely not.” I know that as an engineer, I’d have mom and dad required, probably, for some of my classes. And I wasn’t too enthused about that. They definitely go harder on me; I know that for sure. And I’d also be going to college in some place that was very much home and familiar.

So, I think everyone in my life pretty much, there was no collective gasp because they knew it was coming for a long time.

Jamal Michel: You prepped them for this “I’m gonna’ be out of my comfort zone.” How did that feel to be out of that? You’re in your comfort zone at Duke and in an academic sense, now you’re really out there in a totally different space, different state.  What was that like?

Ella Simmons: It’s nice to go somewhere different, but I’m very thankful for the experiences I had here and especially mom knowing the other side of academics and knowing all of the challenges that students go through. She’s a great mentor to a lot of them way beyond just teaching, she helps them out.

So, she’s very in touch with the things that I might be struggling with outside of academics. You know, making friends and exploring my interests. So, having that support has made college very easy, I think, comparatively, and it’s been nice to be somewhere new, but have those support structures there.

Becky Simmons: The Duke students have been so amazing and gracious to both Ella and Emily, even texting them sometimes, right? Doing check ins or—we had a student once; Emily and she went to a DPAC performance. I don’t know if you remember this, Emily, you were quite young. You and Sarah went to see I think Cinderella, because she had a ticket and wanted to take you to the performance. The students at Duke, I can’t say enough nice things about how amazing they are.

Jamal Michel: And I think that’s really moving and really touching and also, it makes me wonder, was there any pushback from admin? Did you ever come across any sort of challenges bringing your kids to campus?

Becky Simmons: No, fortunately there were never any incidents or issues. I mean, obviously I’m seeing it from my side. I think Ella and Emily are amazing. But again, there was this expectation when they were on campus, my focus was not really going to be on them. Like, I needed to focus on the students and what I was doing, and they needed to help. So, I don’t think they ever distracted or did anything, at least in my opinion, that would have taken away from the Duke student experience, hopefully only maybe added a little value to them.

But no, everyone from administration, colleagues, faculty, staff were always incredibly nice to both Ella and Emily, and there was one secretary that would always have candy out for them—a little Hershey kiss or something like that and was excited to see both the girls.

Jamal Michel: That being said, Emily, you’re obviously going to Duke, right?

Emily Simmons: As a child, I was convinced that I was going to Duke, but now that I’m actually starting to look at colleges, I’m kind of leaning away from Duke for many of the same reasons as Ella. I know most of the faculty and staff that I’d have if I did take engineering, and specifically mechanical engineering. And I feel just like the separation from that might be a little bit more beneficial.

Ella Simmons: I will say though, I think both Emily and I may have been to more Duke classes than classes—even classes that I’ve gone to at Princeton.

Jamal Michel: Have you noticed any of your friends or colleagues reach out to you for advice over the years, even before you started college? Like maybe wondering what to expect? You know, you’ve got some insight to share. Or did you see yourself as like a sage early on?

Ella Simmons: No, I wouldn’t say a sage for sure. But I think it really made me appreciate that no matter what college I ended up at, I’d have amazing faculty like mom.

Becky Simmons: And dad.

Ella Simmons: And dad, so I knew that there would be people like mom and dad, no matter where I went. And it made me appreciate that there wasn’t the stress of going to the perfect college. I knew what college life was, and I knew that it was a bit of what you make of it. So, and from that perspective, I think I had a much less stressful experience applying to colleges than a lot of my friends.

And hopefully I helped them be a little less stressed as well. But I think I was able to get that experience. I don’t know if I had too much advice for my friends who are thinking about college.

Duke University was named one of “America’s Greatest Workplaces for Parents and Families” by Newsweek.

Becky Simmons: It’s nice that they both got a more whole force view of the experience. So, I know when I went to college, I hadn’t been on campus, I didn’t spend time growing up on a campus.

So, it was very new for me. And I think for a lot of students it is a very new experience—each day is new. And you don’t necessarily know how it’s going to unfold in the development that happens. And Ella and Emily have been really lucky because they’ve seen students start their first day to graduating and seeing that, hey, there’s going to be ups and downs.

There’s going to be these sorts of questions, and this is where you can go, here are the potentials. And talking to a lot of students when they’re in their first or second year, there’s quite a bit of anxiety of this unknown and in the moment seeing just the tree in the forest.

And then you talk to a lot of seniors and they’re like, had I known that as a—a lot of seniors call the first year and second years “kids” already because it’s how they already feel. I guess that’s part of the experience, but it is also nice to see that there’s going to be this journey that happens, and there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, and great things are going to happen.

Ella Simmons: Mom takes a lot of calls in the car. She takes a lot of calls from very anxious students on walks, and she’s always contacting them. So, I get to hear, you know, the struggles that the students go through. And then also, those same students that struggle with things in college go do amazing things. And mom’s still in contact with a lot of former students who are doing such incredible things.

And so, I think that perspective has been really key, that I’m going to struggle with things in college, and that’s okay, I will get through it, and there are great things on the other end.

Jamal Michel: One of the last things I want to ask you, Becky, is how different do you think your relationship with the school would have been, as well as your relationship with your daughters, if this closeness to the institution hadn’t really been there? If it was just—you had your school, you went to school, and then you came home, but you kept that, you know, separate.

Becky Simmons: I guess a lot different. Again, I feel so lucky that Ella and Emily could be part of what I also do—a part of what I do here at Duke. I think it’s important also for students to see that this was one way—I love my professional life, I love my family life and there are so many different ways that you can blend those, right? Or not blend them. You may go all professional, you may go all family. That’s a choice and they’re all very good choices. I like that I could also for students that are thinking about, even though it may be in the future, “I want to have a family. I want to be a professional. I want to be close to my kids”—that they could see that relationship. And that it would work out. And I’ve had students come up to me and say, “Oh, can we talk more about…” at some point, I know women have come up and said, “I know I want to do this professionally in the future, but I also want to have a family. Can we have a conversation about that?”

And I think the barrier was down because they saw that I had my kids around. I talked about my family. And that made that conversation easier. I feel very lucky. I love Ella and Emily. I also love Duke. So, it’s great when you can—and I love Neal too, but he’s just not here for the interview right now. We’ll interview him later. So, to have all of that together has been very, very special.

I feel so lucky that Ella and Emily could be…a part of what I do here at Duke. I think it’s important also for students to see that…I love my professional life, I love my family life and there are so many different ways that you can blend those.

Becky Simmons

Jamal Michel: Absolutely. That’s wonderful. I appreciate all of your time. Ella and Emily, any sort of last words of wisdom you might have for folks your age who have parents that are professors that might be overwhelming them and stressing them out.

Ella Simmons: That never happens, does it, mom? There’s never moments of stress in our household.

Becky Simmons: Never, never.

Ella Simmons: I think it’s a very unique experience. It’s a very valuable experience. It’s not an experience that a lot of people get, but I think there’s so much value in it and appreciating that even though it sometimes is stressful and overwhelming to be on campus with all of these other people, I think it’s really special.

Emily Simmons: I would just say take the opportunity it provides because I came so much when I was younger, when mom would ask, “Do you want to come to my class?” I’d normally be like, “No, no, I’m good. I’ve been there so much already.”

But, like, this past year, I’ve gone to my dad’s class twice, because I was like, “Oh, wait, this is actually really interesting,” and I’m at the point now where I can kind of make sense of what he’s teaching. And so just take those opportunities because they’re really cool.

Jamal Michel: Well, clearly, I mean, it’s working out. The school loves you, your daughters love you, and y’all are doing all the right things. This was really so splendid. Thank you again.

Jamal Michel: Becky Simmons hasn’t just been a sage to her daughters. She’s also been a massive resource for so many students here on campus. From undergraduates in design classes to the Graduate Student Committee, if you want to learn more about her impact, you can check out the DEIC Committee in the Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Department.

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