Wilson defies the norm

The Solar Vehicle Project’s leader, Stephanie Wilson, is the first female to head the group in at least a decade.

Senior Stephanie Wilson, leader of this years Solar Vehicle Project, poses in the Engineering and Fisheries building on the Saint Paul campus Thursday night.

Senior Stephanie Wilson, leader of this year’s Solar Vehicle Project, poses in the Engineering and Fisheries building on the Saint Paul campus Thursday night.

by Allison Kronberg

Her first time in a solar car, Stephanie Wilson anxiously climbed into the tiny driver’s seat and closed the cover.

During her first loop around the track, the car malfunctioned and the accelerator stuck on the highest speed. Long minutes passed before her team was able to solve the issue.

Despite her shy and soft-spoken personality, Wilson couldn’t wait to get back in the driver’s seat. The experience earned her the nickname “the Stig,” based on the mysterious racecar test-driver from the English TV series Top Gear.

Wilson, an electrical engineering senior, is now the Solar Vehicle Project’s first female team leader in at least a decade.

Wilson’s experience being one of the team’s first woman leaders isn’t unsurprising in an engineering industry dominated by men, but group members say the project provides a place for women to lead in a gender-neutral setting.

It’s her responsibility to oversee the construction of the award-winning team’s car and keep them on track for the Australia World Solar Challenge race this fall.

“At times, it can be challenging work,” Wilson said of working on the solar car. “But I didn’t want to do something that I instantly knew how to do and then be bored the rest of my life.”

The Iowa-bred student got her start in engineering as a child when her dad, Nathan Wilson, a former engineer, had her and her sisters take apart televisions and VCRs and put them back together to see if they still worked.

“They wanted to participate as I was doing it,” Nathan Wilson said. “So I said, ‘Here’s the tools — now you take it apart.’”

Inspired by her father and her love of math, science and organization, Wilson began considering engineering as a career option in seventh grade.

When her dad got a new job in Minneapolis after high school, she decided to attend the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering — whose student body is about 25 percent female.

“It was kind of strange at first going to a lecture hall filled with people and maybe two to five girls in the room,” Wilson said, “but now that I’m like four years in, it’s become the normal.”

There were especially few women in leadership positions. Wilson said she’s never had a female professor in her engineering courses.

But the solar car team defies the odds. About a third of the group is composed of women, Wilson said, with three women in leadership positions.

Mechanical engineering junior Toni Carlstrom, the team’s mechanical leader, said she’s faced gender bias in a class.

Her all-female team devised the best project in her class, beating out an all-male team. But afterward, a man on that team told her he would still get paid more someday.

“And, you know … I wanted to punch him,” Carlstrom said. “But I didn’t do that. I just walked out.”

She and Wilson said there haven’t been any issues with gender bias on the solar vehicle team, though.

“I feel like how everybody treats me, it would make absolutely no difference if I was a guy,” Wilson said.

After joining the team her freshman year, Wilson took control of the group’s nearly $1.5 million budget and its disorganized finances, which she improved by keeping better records.

“There were certainly other people who were options for running the team, but it kind of wasn’t even really much of a competition,” said Bryan Dean, the team’s previous leader who appointed Wilson. “She was just the clear choice.”

Since being appointed leader of the about 40-person team, Wilson has gained confidence and respect among team members.

Most of her friends, including her boyfriend Mitchell Rogalsky, are on the team.

Rogalsky, the electrical sub-team leader, and Wilson work together to lead the group, and their relationship revolves around the solar car.

They even forgot their second anniversary.

“We were like, ‘Oh, crap!’ because we were so busy with the project,” Rogalsky said. “But it’s all right. It’s our passion, and it’s in the same thing, which is kind of cool.”

But the team has hit a few bumps in the road. Certain projects fell behind, and the team had to work to develop a new timeline for the car, testing Wilson during her busy first semester leading.

Now the group feels it’s back on track to complete the car by fall for the world race, Wilson said, and they’re hoping to win first place this time.

“She’s not afraid of a challenge,” Rogalsky said. “You can’t deter her from what she wants to do. That’s why she’s called the Stig.”