Nadya Peek has conflicting feelings about being named one of MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35, but not for the reason you might think.
The 34-year-old is an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Washington and the principal investigator of Machine Agency. Her lab designs behind-the-scenes tools that makers adapt to for all sorts of machines. An inexpensive machine kit made from cardboard, for example, has been used to create both a 3D scanner and an omelette ketchupping machine.
As a graduate student and postdoc at MIT, she helped Neil Gershenfeld spread the gospel of the fab lab, a digital fabrication makerspace that communities anywhere can set up. She was also a longtime teaching assistant for the popular MIT course “How to Make (Almost) Anything,” and even created her own spin-off, “How to Make Something That Makes (Almost) Anything.”
Her work in modular machinery is what earned her a spot in this year’s Innovators Under 35 list. She said that while she was honored to receive the award, it plays into a harmful narrative that lionizes individual founders.
“I think that everyone has their own version of imposter syndrome,” Peek tells Inverse. “Do I deserve this? And what is this award for?”
Inverse spoke to Peek about irreverent design, tenacity, and aspiring to be superfluous.
Read more in the New Pioneers series:
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was your first experience with science?
I remember being very small and looking at pond water. I must’ve been in kindergarten or first grade, and I was living in Michigan at the time. It was raining, so we were indoors, and someone showed us that you could look at the pond water with a microscope. I was like, “Whoa, there are these animals in the pond water and they're awesome.”
I grew up mostly in the Netherlands, where you have different tracks in high school. I first went to art school. All I wanted to do was build stuff, but a lot of art was also talking about conceptual stuff. I wasn’t super into that part, so I switched to engineering. It was sort of the same: I was building stuff in art school and then I got into building stuff in engineering school.
What did you think an engineer did when you were younger? How is what you do now different from that?
Before undergrad, I toured Delft [University of Technology, in the Netherlands] because it was known for its engineering program. It was like 90 percent dudes. And it wasn’t just that they were all guys; all the projects were cars and rockets and planes. At the time, I had a conception that engineers did a lot of calculations and applied math, and that if I were to go in this direction, I would learn more about simulation and, like, “How do you make this bridge not fall down?” I imagined that engineers go and calculate stuff, and then that stuff doesn't break. I ended up going to the University of Amsterdam, where I majored in artificial intelligence.
Fast forward to now. While I’m an engineering professor, I care deeply about implementation. I want to know: How does it work? Who's using it? How are they using it? There are some obvious disciplinary boundaries — developing a novel data structure is computer science, or creating a new material that’s super slippery so that ketchup can come out of a bottle more easily is material science. But I'm interested in where things are situated in practice.
When did you know that engineering and design were for you?
In undergrad, I worked at an art gallery/cultural institution called Mediamatic. You might not know this, but the Netherlands is famous for typography and type design. As part of a residency, Mediamatic invited Arabic graphic designers to collaborate with Dutch typographers to create a bunch of Arabic typefaces. In 2007, we decided to do this exhibition where we parodied this Dutch department store called HEMA — which is culturally maybe most like Target — and we called it El HEMA. All of the products were in Arabic instead of Dutch, and we rented the tools to prototype all of these products that we were going to sell in our fake department store, where we were going to be showcasing this Arabic typeface. Those tools at the time were very newfangle-y called a fab lab [short for fabrication lab]. So I was making molds for chocolate letters and embroidering towels with the word "towel" in Arabic, and making cheese, and our own line of condoms.
It got a ton of press, and a lot of people got really mad, like “How dare you?” We were even getting death threats. When the gallery opened, it was vastly popular. You had to wait in line because we were at max capacity, and whenever anyone would come in, they would buy everything.
“If I want something to happen, I’ll just sit down and make it work, no matter what.”
One of the people that came to El HEMA was MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld. He was the fab lab person, and I was using some of the software that his group had released from MIT to be able to prototype these parts. A lot of people were like, “Wow, an MIT professor,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s impressive, but your software kind of sucks, dude.” I couldn’t make all the curves I needed to for ligatures in the typeface. He was like, “Very interesting. Have you considered graduate school?”
That was the moment in which I thought, “Maybe I can go to this place.” MIT for me was incredible, because I’m very interdisciplinary, and a lot of the people there are also interested in many different things. There’s an acronym they use, which is IHTFP, “I have truly found paradise.” It also stands for “I hate this place.”
I’m a fortunate person. I feel like I have a very awesome life, but there are a lot of things that happen to you if you’re a woman, or a person of color, or both a woman and a person of color in engineering. All the time, people will be like, “Oh, are you here to get us coffee?” It's often clear to me that this system wasn't made for me, and it wasn’t made for a lot of people. I have the stubbornness and tenacity to exist in this, but I’m also strongly motivated by the unfairness of the system to change it.
Assumptions are ingrained in the structure of technology and how we engage with it. Sometimes they’re harmless, like, “This is going to be used on a table,” but other times they have consequences that I don’t think are very cool. In automation equipment, for example: Why is there a big difference between the people who program robots and the people who run robots?
What’s a time you’ve failed in design and engineering?
I'm interested in modular, reconfigurable, and customizable technology. So, for example, say you have a machine and you want it to be bigger — you can just stretch its dimensions. But there's a point in which that breaks down. I had a machine that worked really well when it was small, and then I needed a bigger one. So I just made it bigger, but I used the same diameter guide shaft and the same size motors. There were all these new problems that I introduced, where things slightly deflected because of the weight, and motors were like getting hotter because they had to push more. It was disappointing, because I talk about these machine designs and other technology that are, in theory, infinitely customizable, and then you clearly run into the limitation of your implementation because of physics.
Another time I gave a lecture in South America about spectroscopy, and right before it started, they were like, “Please give the lecture in Spanish.” I can speak Spanish but not super well. I give this whole lecture about spectroscopy, and the entire time I’m talking about lenses, I keep saying “lenteja.” At the end of the lecture, they’re like, “Nadya, ‘lenteja’ is lentil. You’ve been saying lentil this whole time.”
How have you changed your field?
I strongly advocate for modularity and interoperability and inclusiveness, and being able to create these different workflows. How I approach building and sharing tools, especially through open source hardware and being able to reproduce things without an economy of scale or a marketplace is sort of unique.
This is a question where you have to brag about yourself a lot. It's awkward.
I think I've built a lot of cool machines. But the main thing is that other people use parts of those machines for their own designs. That's not an accident; I specifically made it that way on purpose. When you're in graduate school, sometimes it can be lonely. People would tell me, "No one's going to read your dissertation," and I just have found that the complete opposite is true — a lot of people have read my dissertation. So maybe I'm not famous for discovering the helical structure of DNA, but lots of people have used my work.
What are some of the cool ways in which people have used your designs?
Take the Cardboard Machine Kit that I made with James Coleman. It's a series of modular cardboard stages that you can configure into machines to do different things. My favorite thing about the machines that people make with the Cardboard Machine Kit is just how weird they all are there.
This one group made a machine where they mounted a syringe on it, and it plunges into bubble wrap and fills the bubbles up with ink. It's kind of like a dot matrix printer, but with syringes that are filling up bubble wrap with ink. It just feels weirdly specific, and so cool, but also so weird.
There are also some designs that are maybe more scientifically interesting. In my lab Machine Agency, my Ph.D. student Joshua Vasquez developed a machine, Jubilee, which can pick up and drop off different tools. A lot of people are using it for 3D printing or other normal fabrication tasks, but then there are also people who are using it to pick up microbial colonies from petri dishes. It's not frivolous in the same way [as a dot matrix printer with syringes and bubble wrap], but I feel like the frivolity makes that kind of diversity possible. Like, if it's easy enough for you to create a cocktail-making robot, then it's also easy enough for you to do science.
What’s a rookie mistake you’ve made?
At MIT, there's a class called "How to Make (Almost) Anything." I was a TA for that class for approximately a decade. Early in the class, I realized there was just no documentation for any of this stuff. I'd want to use this CNC mill [a computer numerical control mill used to make custom parts], and I'd have no idea how to do it. So I wrote all these tutorials that were posted online, and in one of the first tutorials that I wrote, I was talking about how to use a CNC mill. I wrote "end mill" [a cutting tool], but I'd never seen the word "end mill," and I'd only heard people say it quickly. So I thought it was "N mill," like "Nadiya mill." My whole tutorial talks about "N mills," and it stayed up for years.
Years later, this student who was in one of my classes was like, "I read this tutorial that you wrote, which was so inspiring because it was like written by you a long time ago, and you just wrote 'N mill' like some kind of noob. And I realized that at some point, you were also a noob."
What’s your superpower?
I’m very stubborn. If I want something to happen, I’ll just sit down and make it work, no matter what. This also plays into the irreverence thing. I’ve presented to companies and it's all guys, and they don't realize that you're the presenter until way into it, after they’ve said awkward stuff. And that you then call them on it — being stubborn in those situations has really helped me.
And you’ve presented to major companies and even the Obama White House.
Yeah, these are people who think they have all the answers, and so if you think they’re wrong, they need to hear that. The White House presentation is a good example of that. The Obama administration focused a lot on makers. There was the Nation of Makers, and I got to go to the White House Maker Faire and meet Obama. A lot of it was about education. In that presentation, I was like, "Yes, it's true we need more educational opportunities for people to have engagement with STEM. But a lot of what is industrial technology is completely broken. It sucks. There's no reason to learn how to use this stuff; you should just make it better."
It's not an easy thing to frame. If you want to get that message across, you need to frame it in a way that the person you're talking to can hear you. That goes back to the stubbornness. I just practice, I think about what it is that I'm trying to say, and I have a goal. Maybe younger me would be angry and say, “Screw this company, you guys are bad.” But later I was like, “OK, what I want is change, right? So what do I need to do to make this change?” Sometimes you can really make an impact if you can get through to people. I think that, at the time, the Office of Science and Technology Policy really listened.
What’s one thing you’d like to do that no one has done before?
I think that basically everything has been done before, but a lot of people did it really badly. And they did it in a way that other people couldn't replicate, or you'd have to be in some magical castle with access to infinite money to be able to do it. I think that the idea of “first” and this hero inventor persona stand in the way of a lot of flourishing, because it makes “that’s been done before” into a negative thing.
What’s one thing you’d tell your younger self?
If a younger version of myself were questioning, “Am I really good at anything? Am I an engineer?” I'd tell them talent is sort of meaningless without the work. As long as you put in the work, you’ll get there.
What’s a prediction you have for 2030?
There is a very limited number of people that make a lot of the things that we use, and how we get access to them, design them, and use them is increasingly controlled by groups that have a lot of inertia.
“What I would want, if anything, would be ‘Nadya worked hard to make sure that no one cared who she was.’”
The converse is that, by 2030, we have collected enough tools for us to collaborate and rely on subsystems and infrastructure. We'd have a really diverse and flourishing technological landscape where you can come up with ideas and implement them, and you can come up with products and build them. Yeah, that’s the one I want.
What do you do on a day off?
I play in a band called Construction. Once, I was teaching a workshop on how to use large mills, and this person, Marko Ahtisaari, came to my workshop. We talked about music briefly as part of the workshop, and then we decided to start a band. I’m not a fantastic musician, but my bandmate is a very good bass player. I make up for the lack of quality of any of my playing with quantity, since I play all the other instruments.
Making music is a good counterpoint to debugging and problem solving. Performing is very immediate, in contrast to things that are really delayed, like designing electromechanical systems. Music is also very helpful in terms of using a different part of my creativity.
If your biography were written today, what would you want the title to be, and who would write it?
I feel like there’s no real wrong answer to this. So maybe my biography would just be called Nadya Peek. I really like William Gibson’s nonfiction writing, if I can pick anyone.
A biography is a difficult one, because why is there a biography? I feel like the other answer I'd have to this question is the opposite, like, I don't want people to think that I was important in any way. Ultimately, what I want is that I am superfluous. I am good at solving problems, and people ask me to help them solve problems all the time. But I want that to become easy, and so I think that the future that I see is not a future in which I am a biography-worthy person. What I would want, if anything, would be “Nadya worked hard to make sure that no one cared who she was.”
Who’s a game-changer you want to shout out?
I was strongly influenced by Lucy Suchman, who is an anthropologist and who also was one of my professors. There are a bunch of cool people that I talk to a lot, including Rebecca Woods and Sophia Roosth, who are historians. Alma Steingart, Leilani Battle.
What’s next for you?
Construction is releasing our second EP in October, called “We’re great, thanks for asking,” which we finished and named in November.
I feel like I'm at the cusp of this big change of how I work with my research group and my awesome students. I've spent a lot of time on designing machines and building systems for people to use automation equipment. And I'm really excited about the next phase of building and releasing more, and being able to enable other people to build on top of it.
One thing I'm also looking forward to is figuring out engineering work while social distancing. I wrote a grant proposal sometime last year about remote operation of automation equipment, and it got rejected because they were like, “Nobody needs this.”
With what will happen next, a lot of people are talking about “normal,” but normal kind of sucked in a lot of ways.
If you want to go to graduate school, they pay you to get a Ph.D.!