Three women sitting next to a formula car.
Photo credit
Richard G. Anderson

The Female Formula

Women rise up in the ranks of CSE’s student formula car team

When electrical engineering major Rose Slater attended the CSE Welcome Week Student Organization Fair as a freshman, she didn’t know anything about cars. But, she decided to take a risk and try something new. 

“I remember walking up to a table of guys next to a racecar and asking them if I could join the team,” said Slater, now a junior. “They promised to teach me everything as long as I was interested.”

Slater may not have known anything about cars then, but now she’s project manager of Gopher Motorsports, more formally known as the University of Minnesota’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (FSAE) team. As part of the “top three” students in charge, Slater keeps the team on schedule and directs operations on drive days and work weekends. 

Completely student-run, the group designs, markets, and races a high-speed formula car, seeing through an entire engineering project from start to finish every year. The team recently placed fourth out of nearly 80 teams at the FSAE competition in Lincoln, Neb., and is currently ranked #2 in the United States.

Taking on the challenge

Slater is one of only five active female team members, compared to 30 male students, and she’s the first female project manager in Gopher Motorsports’ 40-year history. But despite being outnumbered, Slater isn’t fazed. 

“We’ve had a female president, but no female leaders as high-ranking and technically invested, so this is pretty exciting,” said Slater, who receives a scholarship through the Carl E. and Ethel A. Swanson Electrical Engineering Endowment Fund. “I think over the next year as the team and season picks up, I’m going to learn a lot about myself, being a leader, and specifically being a female leader in a male-dominated culture.”

After helming the electrical sub-team last year, Slater was elected to oversee team operations this year on account of her dependability, dedication, and organization skills. 

“I love that being a team lead is a challenge,” she said. “You’d think if you were confident in technical material, leading that sub-team or team would be easy."

"Only a little of the leadership comes down to knowledge," Slater said. "It’s all about communication, honesty, confidence, and organization.”

These values are what propelled Slater to a management position, but she isn’t the only woman on the team to demonstrate these qualities. Seniors Diana Sorenson and Kristen Spurlock are filling leadership roles as the team’s chief operating officer and president, respectively. 

Sorenson joined her freshman year when she was a biology major. Now, she is pursuing a CSE degree in industrial and systems engineering—being on the FSAE team helped her figure out what she really wanted to study. Taking the reins on the business side of the team, Sorenson maintains relationships with company sponsors—a task without which the team could not survive.

“Developing relationships with who I am working with has been the biggest part of finding my voice,” Sorenson said.

“I feel that if [my work] starts a conversation, I’m in the right direction,” she said. “And when it stems entirely from confidence and passion, people tend to listen.”

Spurlock, a mechanical engineering major and recipient of the Frank Janezich Scholarship, is the team’s newly elected president, a position that includes university relations, organizing outreach, and leading team meetings. Last year, Spurlock was the first female to lead the aerodynamics sub-team, which strives to make the car’s exterior as aerodynamic as possible.

“I feel like I can finally get my ideas out there,” she said. “I felt like I could express my ideas and tell people about them before, but now I feel like people are actually listening.”

Three women working on a car.
Left to right: Diana Sorenson, Kristen Spurlock, and Rose Slater working on the team's 2019 formula car. Credit: Richard G. Anderson

Making an impact on the next generation

Sorenson loves seeing the impact of her involvement on younger generations, often going back home to Rochester, Minn., to speak with students from her high school about opportunities in engineering after they graduate.

“It is so fun to see young kids so interested in our project,” she said.

“One year [at the State Fair], a mom asked me to take a picture with her 6-year-old daughter because I was a female in STEM. It made me feel like a Disney princess, dressed in a terrible uniform polo,” Sorenson said with a laugh.

As active members of Gopher Motorsports, these students put 10-15 hours or more a week into the club. Balancing academic work and the FSAE team is a big challenge, Slater said. 

“It takes a lot of dedication to both school and the team,” she said. “I think that’s where that team culture comes in. If you’re not enjoying who you’re spending time with, it’s a lot harder to get things done.”

Despite the heavy time commitment, the three women agree that the team atmosphere makes it all worth it.

“I love the team,” Sorenson added. “Everyone is so supportive of each other. While we are all focused on making the fastest car we can, putting in insane hours and living off of Red Bull and coffee, we still manage to have fun with everything we do.”

Slater said that despite the glaring proportion of women to men, she never feels out of place, and that her fellow male team members are always encouraging. Yet, she acknowledges the difference. 

“Being a woman in engineering, it’s a pretty normal thing and becomes something I rarely notice anymore,” Slater said. “That being said, when it gets called out that I’m one of three females in my electrical engineering classes, it becomes very obvious that’s a problem.”

“I think we bring a lot of leadership, and that’s why we’re in these positions,” Spurlock said.

“We’re well-respected not because we are women,” she added, “but because we’ve earned the respect by following through with our actions and showing the team that we are committed to this.” 

“Women tend to think differently than men, so there is immense benefit to have both perspectives in the industry,” Sorenson said. “While more women are joining the professional realm, it is important for all of us to continue to be advocates for those to come. And with more and more women in STEM, we have a chance to impact the females of the future more than ever, and it’s important we take advantage of that.”

And take advantage of that they certainly have. 

Gopher Motorsports will unveil their new car on Friday, April 12. The team's first competition of the 2019 season will be Formula SAE Michigan, which pits collegiate teams from around the world against each other on May 8-11.

Story by Olivia Hultgren; video by Sebastian Alfonzo

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