For Niko Simpkins, a musician who performs, produces and engineers his own tracks, the most exciting processes combine structure and flexibility, creativity and rigor. As a third-year student he sees his mechanical engineering education as a framework for problem solving that might serve him across a broad set of endeavors, and for now, he’s more interested in learning than narrowing to any one particular career path.
“One of my mentors told me early on not to look for a specific job with a specific title, but to imagine a job that doesn’t exist yet,” he says. “That resonated with me and it’s the way I approach things.”
Simpkins discovered a love for technology early in his life, but it was his work in the music studio that led him to engineering school.
“I was always interested in robotics, motors and programs/programming, but when I got into music I came to think more about systems and processes,” he says. “Since nobody can make a rubric or map out success for a song, video or merchandise, the only real standard or ceiling is a self-set one. Becoming a great content creator means learning how to raise that ceiling by your own internal motivation and genuine enthusiasm for excellent work. Thanks to this mindset, I find open-ended assignments are most conducive to my best work.”
At Penn, Simpkins has been focused on projects like leading a team to design, pitch and build a miniature basketball game, resulting in lessons in collaboration, managing cross-functional workstreams and working smarter for better results. He’s currently leading an exploratory study to develop educational technology for the Philosophy department and interning for a consulting firm with a focus on business development for startups.
He’s also explored his own natural aptitude for leadership. As president of the Underrepresented Student Advisory Board in Engineering, he liaises between minority groups on campus and the Dean’s office in Penn Engineering to create and implement actionable strategies for supporting students, facilitating dialogue and promoting diversity and inclusion. He also serves as a Weingarten Ambassador and the corporate relations chair for the Penn chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, where he’s organized events and raised over $10,000 in sponsorships.
This summer, in addition to an internship in process engineering at a major medical device manufacturer, Simpkins will lead the second year of a physics program he created through ODE&I for incoming minority students. As demonstrated by his engagements as Head Peer Mentor of the Africana Summer Institute, Simpkins believes deeply in the value of mentorship and in the importance of highlighting Black representation in the sciences, something he didn’t always have exposure to in his own earlier education.
“When you open books and you don’t see people who look like you, that’s a subtle signal that can avert your imagination,” he says. “It’s important for people to understand that you don’t need to have parents who are engineers or go to NASA Space Camp to pursue this field of study.”
While he continues to operate his music business, producing tracks and negotiating publishing and royalty deals for himself and other artists, Simpkins remains open to all of the creative possibilities his engineering degree can conjure, whether in music, entrepreneurship, technology or some combination thereof.
“I appreciate that the mechanical engineering curriculum leans away from teaching rigid technical skills but rather the process of observation, analysis and application to answer various and sometimes intimidating questions,” he says. “Whatever field I end up in, whether it’s consulting or technology or developing devices, I will be applying this knowledge, reframing problems, creating solutions and making an impact.