Meet PKG: Rebecca Smith, Interim IDEAS Administrator


“I was born here in Boston, but when I was four we moved to Central New York to a pretty small town,” says Becca Smith, who has recently joined the PKG Center as Interim IDEAS Coordinator. Smith is on the quieter side, a calming and relaxed presence with a kind sense of humor. After growing up in New York, she returned to Boston and became a staple of the MIT community, first as an undergraduate student, and then as a long-time collaborator and worker across campus organizations.

As an undergraduate student, Smith studied Mechanical Engineering at MIT, class of 2009, and during this time, she felt a strong pull towards design but was unsure exactly where that pull would ultimately take her. And then, by her senior year, she got involved with D-Lab, a move that grew to define her work for years to come.

Through D-Lab, Smith explains, “you get on a team and over IAP you go and work with community partners, so I went to Tanzania over IAP 2009. And that experience kind of changed everything for me.” From there, Smith spent the final months of her senior year, heavily involved with D-Lab and working intensely on her design skills. In the spring of that year, she actually ended up being a part of a winning IDEAS team. Like many college seniors, Smith found herself at a crossroads of possibilities for post-grad life.

“I had applied to grad school right before leaving for Industrial Design Programs [over IAP],” Smith says. “But at the time it was kind of like choosing between this really expensive thing that I did know if it was the exactly right fit for me anymore, versus… I could buy a plane ticket and keep working on these projects that probably won’t continue if I don’t do them.” Smith says the IDEAS team was also a part of her plans moving forward and beyond her undergraduate time at MIT, and after graduating, she decided to settle in at D-Lab where she spent five years on a wide range of design and research projects.

“While I was at D-Lab, I spent a couple years learning qualitative research, which definitely comes up in product design and engineering,” Smith says of how D-Lab has supported her career over the years. “There’s a user and you’re trying to determine their needs and design for their needs.” For Smith, it’s not about simply “going in with a solution,” but rather going in with an informed solution, a solution or solutions that will work for the community who is actually facing the issue at hand. “We saw a need for that [kind of work and research], and I was really interested in doing that kind of work,” Smith says of her longstanding collaboration with D-Lab, and even in more recent years where she has moved on to freelancing research opportunities with external community-based organizations, these skills and interests remain important to her work.  

It’s clear just by listening to Smith talk that her interests are widespread and varied, both hands-on and more analytical, behind-the-scenes. But a constant thread in her work seems to be community. As she said of her research and design work alike, for Smith, it is not about designing for designing’s sake; it’s about designing with the context of whatever community you are designing for. “I think I was always interested in ‘doing good’ and public service,” Smith explains. “But my early experiences with D-Lab kind of gave me the push I needed to commit. And then it’s just really hard to come back once you’re in that kind of work.” It’s the kind of work that lends itself to her counsel of current IDEAS student teams.

As for her role at PKG, Smith says she is happy to be working with such a collaborative and passionate team of staff members. After doing some solitary projects over recent years, it’s nice to be in an office and it’s nice to feel the support and to learn from the work of coworkers at the PKG Center. As a kind of MIT-native—an alum, a D-Lab worker and researcher, and in her current role at PKG—Smith also says she has an interesting perspective now that she’s on the other side of IDEAS. No longer a student, Smith acts as an advisor for the kinds of teams she had once been apart of herself.

“It’s nice, because so much of the role is working with students, to sort of relate at that level [having already been a part of IDEAS as a student here],” Smith says of her position now, at the head of organizing the 2019 IDEAS Global Challenge. “That was a really good learning experience for me, [being a part of that team],” Smith says, “especially in terms of team building and team dynamics. Realizing that those softer skills are actually really important [to the success of a project]. And I try to share that with students now.”

Becca Smith will follow through with IDEAS 2019 and remain at the PKG Center throughout the spring semester.

Her go-to book varies, but she says she has always had a soft spot for the books she grew up with.

“The books I read in like the sixth to the eighth grade like Phantom Booth, The Westing Game, Holes. I feel like I could read them whenever and wherever. And for a while, if I found them at Goodwill or Boomerangs I would buy them and give them to friends. They’re just so good.”

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