I remember the day I heard about the Michigan Solar Car team. I was at dinner one winter night in early 2000, and one of my friends began to talk about an upcoming recruitment meeting. I remember stopping him excitedly, asking, “Wait, there’s a solar car team here??”
You see, one of the many magazines I received as a child (I think it was National Geographic Explorer) had talked about the first World Solar Challenge, and although this moment was over 10 years since reading that article, the memory stuck with me. The possibility of actually being a part of something like that was impossible to pass up. So I went to the meeting, and I joined up instantly.
However, I had a problem—I was a biochemistry premedical student in LSA at the time. I had an existing interest in the weather, so initially I joined the weather team as a part of Strategy. Although I later moved to Operations to become the head of logistics, I continued to help our team meteorologist with forecasting for Strategy, since doing race crew logistics required me to be in our front-most caravan vehicle Weather. Also, since Operations tends to be a mostly daytime affair, I helped the engineers in our various workspaces at night.
I experienced our crew’s most defining moment this way—we were zig-zagging across the interstate in Oklahoma, and Weather had gotten fairly far ahead of the rest of the caravan. A broken message started coming over the radio—something about us needing to come back, and a crash. We whipped around and raced back along the race route.
Seeing M-Pulse lying in a ditch with barbed wire cutting through the array was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. Being part of a team that cries its tears for a few minutes, and then springs into action to salvage the car, call for materials for repairs, and gets us back to fix the car was one of the most powerful. We had less than a month until the race, but although the lower chassis was totaled, the crew didn’t give up. That was an amazing thing. Of anything, I think I miss that the most—being a part of a unit that was so incredibly cohesive and driven.
Of course, the best memory has to be realizing that we were going to finish first in ASC. Crossing the finish line after a month of endless effort was an indescribable moment.
One of the largest impacts the crash had was on how we ran our race caravan. After the crash, one of Weather’s tasks became to help the crew in Stealth paint potholes in bright orange paint. The section of road that the crash occurred in had us stopping every few feet. We won a safety award for
our efforts, since our paint also helped every team that was behind us (they nicknamed it “The Orange Death”).
There were of course many smaller moments. I remember helping the team move into our Ypsilanti workspace, which the team just recently left. I remember people getting a Texan introduction to my childhood nemesis, the fire ant. I remember being amazed by the Leonid meteor shower late one night in the Outback.
One of my prouder moments was when we received the awning I got sponsored, which was the length of the semi-trailer. In Australia, we finally had time to drill our Operations end-of-day procedures. All of those drills paid off, because one day in Katherine Adriaan and I looked up at the sky and saw a wicked storm bearing down upon us. We just yelled “End of day drill! Go go go!” Just in time, we got the trailer opened, the car inside, and the awning up before the heavens opened. Some people indulged in showering in water that streamed off of the awning.
I remember getting excited every time Weather had to stop to download weather satellite images with our portable dish. This probably gives some clue as to what I do now. The education I received as part of the weather team encouraged me to move over to the College of Engineering. I became a major in Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences.
That decision changed the course of my life—I just completed my PhD in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington. I’m currently sitting on the Equator watching the clouds as part of the Dynamics of the Madden-Julian Oscillation (DYNAMO) field campaign. This isn’t my first field campaign—later in my years at Michigan, I flew through severe thunderstorm systems over the Great Plains. For my master’s work at UW, I flew through Hurricane Katrina.
Being part of UMSCT more than amply prepared me for scientific field campaigns. It’s poignant for me that I was in this part of the world almost exactly 10 years ago for the World Solar Challenge. Compared to ASC and WSC, sitting in a trailer in the Maldives watching radar output is a walk in the park!
And that is the advice I can give to the current team. If you’re doing it right, solar car will take you to your limits and test them repeatedly. One of the most valuable things I learned through solar car is that my limits are much further away than I thought, which is something I remember when life gets challenging.
So let the thrill push you, and never give up. If nothing else, the Michigan spirit is tenacious.
This post was written by Deanna Hence Van Bodegom, a former member of Operations and Strategy. To read more about the work she is currently involved in, click here.