The women leading the solar car racing
25 Oct 2023
By Matthew Ward Agius | Cosmos
Despite data showing girls outperform boys in many school classrooms around the world and are as likely – if not more – to go to university, women continue to be significantly underrepresented in tertiary science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.
In employment, gender gaps in STEM fields tend to increase as a nation becomes more developed. American data suggests about 1 in 5 engineering parchments go to women, World Bank data shows women are outnumbered 1:2 in engineering enrolments. Representation is only slightly improved in ICT and approaches parity in natural sciences and mathematics.
In solar car racing, women tend to be underrepresented too, even with crews staffed by students from marketing, communications and business majors.
Some teams are approaching gender parity – Australian National University and University of Toronto, Canada – but overall only about a sixth of teams have women on staff.
Cosmos caught up with some of them to learn how they help their crews challenge for victory.
Andrea Holden, Team Manager, Sunswift Racing (Australia)
Cosmos: What is your job?
AH: I often say I do a lot of stuff, because I think my role in the team over the last few years was very heavily on the build of Sunswift 7. So that was a lot of coordination and knitting it all together. But as I’ve kind of evolved, that responsibility has been more dispersed through the team.
Cosmos: What do you enjoy most about your role?
What I have enjoyed personally is the life, being there to help build our leadership team. The way the team operates now has changed so much since I joined – there wasn’t a team manager when I joined.
So I identify that something’s not working, try something – and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. As someone who’s not technically minded, the fact that I get the same experience – being an engineer that doesn’t want to do engineering – is very cool.
Cosmos: What impact has being involved in Sunswift had for your career?
When you’re in a lecture theatre, you’re sitting with your cohort – if you’re an electrical engineer, you’re sitting in a room full of electrical engineers, that’s all you really ever get exposed to – that’s something I particularly find frustrating about university. It just seems weird when you go out in industry and you’ve got usually at least three types of engineers working with you, that you would go to a lecture theatre and then never know how to talk to a mechanical engineer or someone like that.
Alinda Dersjant, Technical Manager, Brunel (Netherlands)
Cosmos: What is your job?
I’m responsible, in general, for two things: making sure the car is finished in time, and making sure we make the best of the budget we have. Basically, I’m a project manager.
Cosmos: Did you study to be an engineer?
I actually have a chemistry major [from] the United States where I also played volleyball for the university. After four years, I came back and went to the University of Delft for my master’s in sustainable energy technology, which is an engineering degree.
Cosmos: As a technical manager, what are your responsibilities for Brunel?
On a daily basis, I see what projects need more attention too, and prioritize the things that are actually most important. I work together a lot with our chief engineer. So what he’s responsible for is for the model, the 3D model of the car, to make sure all the nuts and bolts fit.
Cosmos: How do you look after the car during the competition?
I drive the front race vehicle. It’s my responsibility to get the car through the country in the safest and fastest way possible. You can imagine with a car designed to be very low to the ground because of aerodynamics, with all the big trucks driving here, the solar car driver doesn’t have a lot of vision of what’s going on, so we protect the car from the front.
Annelies De Geeter, Strategist, Innoptus (Belgium)
Cosmos: What is your job?
I’m a computer scientist and I run simulations based on the weather data on the route. So the heading, the slope, everything we will encounter in the upcoming days. And I run simulations to see how fast we go. And then we put everything together, see the context of the competitors and then we decide what the strategy will be.
Cosmos: Are all solar team strategists computer scientists?
Not all strategists are computer scientists but right now, I am. So, I focus on the simulations and the modelling of how curved our panel will be compared to our aerodynamics.
We have a couple of weather models and we do a predictive analysis of what, most likely, conditions will be. It’s like putting everything together, but not all things come out of simulations, you still have to think with your own brains.
Jessica Bos, Operations Manager, Solar Team Twente (Netherlands)
Cosmos: What is your job?
At the beginning of the year I was lead engineer, contributed to the moulds of the car, and after that, I switched to logistics.
Cosmos: It would be a pretty big job to move a whole solar car team across the world, right?
Yeah so, I had to prepare everything for Australia, so the logistics of all our cargo, but also the flight tickets for team, the housing here in Australia. And right now, during the race, I’m responsible for the camp.
Cosmos: Could you lean on the previous experience of coming to Australia to make things easier?
The logistical world changes constantly, especially during the four years, so a lot of knowledge we had in the last four years wasn’t accurate anymore, we had to figure everything out ourselves again.
Cosmos: What things do you need to think about when planning to move a team overseas?
I work in the preparation with our team manager Kirsten, we did a lot of the logistics together. All our stuff goes back in a ship. We have one big 40ft container and we’ll load it up in Adelaide and then it goes back to the Netherlands.
You have to think about what you want to bring to Australia, because you can’t bring everything, and the documentation you need to prepare for what you do bring over – that’s the most difficult part.
Cosmos: You’re basically responsible for, what? 40 people? How do you keep them fed and watered?
We have around four litres of water per person a day. Because we’re here with 41 people and some of the drivers need more water, we have around 100 packets of 10L water, and 120 loaves of bread.
Bonnie Zhu, Marketing, University of Michigan (USA)
Cosmos: What’s your job?
I’m the Head Marketing Specialist for the University of Michigan Solar Car Team. We’re a very, very lean team, so we handle everything from social media, writing, newsletters, graphic design, video producing, photography, pretty much everything.
Cosmos: Is your background in science or engineering major, or do you study marketing and work in a science-related field?
I’m a communications major. I really spent my time at school studying mass media.
Cosmos: So why did you bring your skills into the solar car program?
At the time I joined just because I thought it would be interesting and I was involved in sponsorship. But since then I’ve really fallen in love with the industry, with what the team was doing marketing wise and I think I played a pretty big role in helping expand media and marketing for the team.
Cosmos: Why does a volunteer-run student solar team need sponsorship and marketing?
We are a non-profit organisation so we don’t really make money off anything that we do. All of our cash flow comes from having sponsor relations and having corporate partnerships where companies are able to donate, whether that’s money or in-kind assets to us.
Cosmos: What impact does the communications side of things have on the work that the team does?
Our mission statement is “earn the victory, move the world” and while the team in engineering earn the victory, our job in marketing is to try to move the world, that’s really just spreading the message of what we’re trying to do here: having a group of college students design, build and race a world-class solar car across the Australian outback – that’s a pretty amazing story – and a lot of the technology that we use in the car is the future of solar, future PVs.