Behind the Scenes of Pratt’s Hottest Podcast
By Jackie Ong
When a small group of students launched “This Engineering Life,” they had no idea the show would still be going strong five seasons later
Being a Duke Engineering student can be overwhelming. It can feel like there are a million opportunities to take advantage of an entirely new culture. From studying abroad to learning basketball traditions, students have a lot to take in. The team behind the podcast “This Engineering Life” hopes to help quiet the churn.
Rebecca Simmons, a Duke associate professor of the practice in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Material Science, launched This Engineering Life with then-seniors Elle Smyth and Becca Norman. The podcast was intended for undergraduate students at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, and the idea was that the students themselves would drive the podcast and faculty would provide backup as needed. The first episode, released on January 22, 2020, was titled “Crazie Engineering?” and was about striking a balance between school and extracurriculars.
“I feel like listening to the perspectives of students from different class years is a great way to learn about things that you may not have experienced yourself.”
Currently, the podcast is hosted by Simmons, seniors Sydney Hunt and Priya Juarez, junior Reyna Vrbensky, and sophomore Richard Kim. Their motivation remains straightforward: to teach listeners something new. “Pratt is its own nice little community, but there’s so much that goes on that it’s impossible to know everything,” said Vrbenksy, who is also the audio engineer. “We are trying to shine a light on as much as we can so that other students know where to find it.”
Episodes of This Engineering Life have spanned a wide range of topics, from raising awareness of professional opportunities like internships or lab research, to in-depth interviews with Pratt personalities including former dean Ravi Bellamkonda and cocreator of Duke’s Innovation Co-Lab Chip Bobbert. They have also covered general Duke lifestyle topics, like food and resident animal celebrities, as well as subjects like ethics and representation.
Although they have already published 34 episodes, the team is far from running out of ideas. “Sometimes we’re like, ‘What’s new? We’ve done a lot of stuff,’ but then we always throw out a million more ideas… We always have so many more things that we want to touch on,” said Vrbenksy. The team continues to post episodes twice a month on Spotify, Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts.
“During my four years here, there have been a lot of transitions,” said Hunt, who co-hosts the podcast and manages its social media presence. “There have been a lot of things that only certain grades have experienced or know about. I feel like listening to the perspectives of students from different class years is a great way to learn about things that you may not have experienced yourself.”
“We think very intentionally about having diversity of voice and experiences including gender, race, ethnicity, and major,” added Simmons. “The hope is that we can both inspire students and help them feel supported.” She admitted, though, that some episodes are “pure fun, and so hopefully they give students a laugh.”
“We think very intentionally about having diversity of voice and experiences including gender, race, ethnicity, and major.”
The biggest obstacle that the team faces, perhaps, is whittling the rich conversation down to the length of a standard episode. “Sometimes I’ll have an interview that goes on for 20 minutes, and I love every single part of it,” said Hunt. “Having to take out pieces to get at whatever point you are trying to make can be hard to do.” Another difficulty they encounter is scheduling conflicts. Vrbesky said that it’s difficult to even get more than one Duke student in a room at the same time—but when they manage it, they create a more effective episode.
Despite the challenges of producing This Engineering Life, the podcast has created a close-knit community. The staff meets regularly during the school year and even over the summer. To celebrate the end of a recent season, they ate dinner at Simmons’s house and had a discussion about a book they’d all read—an experience that turned into the first episode of season five.
“We’ve become like a family,” said Simmons.
In the future, the team hopes to interview alumni, check back in with past guests, and even start a TikTok. To stay updated, you can follow their Instagram @thisengineeringlife_duke, and to listen to all their episodes or submit a topic idea, you can visit their website sites.duke.edu/thisengineeringlife.