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Julia O’Mara: Fail forward and embrace mistakes

Feb. 26, 2020

Julia O’Mara is a sophomore studying mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering. She is the steering lead on the MSU Solar Race Car Team. The team is composed of four managers, 20 leads and about 40 members.

The MSU Solar Racing Team has been the best thing I’ve ever been a part of at Michigan State. Not only is it super cool to be able to design a solar-powered electric race car, but the knowledge I’ve gained from doing this project has made me a better engineer. 

This team has taught me the practical engineering skills that you don’t learn in class — things like cost-effective design analysis, stepping out of your comfort zone, being a leader, cross-functional collaboration, finding sponsors, ordering your own material and designing something without instructions.

The Solar Racing Team is where theoretical lessons from the classroom meet practical experience.

One particular lesson I learned in my Engineering 100 course my first semester at MSU has greatly impacted my experience with the Solar Racing Team. It was a statistic that said women need to feel 100 percent confident before taking on a position, whereas men only need to feel around 66 percent confident. 

After my freshman year, I was offered the steering lead position on the team. At the time, I didn’t understand everything about steering systems and didn’t want to let anyone down by not making a perfect system. 

I thought, “There’s so many other people who’d probably do a better job than me,” but then I remembered that statistic, and I immediately accepted the position.

The role and responsibilities of being the team steering lead has challenged me in many ways. 

I find that designing your own project can be difficult, especially when you have other homework to do or don’t know where to start. But thankfully my teammates are always willing to help. My first semester as a lead I often looked up to Zak Kubiak, the previous steering lead and now mechanical manager. He’s given me great advice whenever I need it.

Our team is relatively young. There’s no step-by-step instructions to do what we do, so we rely heavily on people who are willing to figure it out. While there are always those people on our team, we’re not always so successful. 

This past summer, for example, we failed to race because of some detrimental design mistakes, but it’s all part of the learning process. As a woman engineer, I often have to remind myself to fail forward and embrace mistakes in order to learn. 

Also, we’re all students who just want to learn as much as we can about engineering.

I still don’t know everything about steering systems, but at least now I’m confident I can figure out a problem and I always have my teammates to ask any questions. 

This past semester my team successfully designed and manufactured the new steering column. It took more than three months to complete and is a big improvement on our old steering column because it’s a lot lighter. 

As the lead, it’s been really encouraging having teammates who are eager to learn and want to be involved in the design process. I’ve really loved working with them and guiding them to take on their own small projects so they can learn about the steering system on their own. 

My hope is that they learned a little more and want to continue pushing themselves to emerge as stronger Spartan Engineers. 

This year we've focused all our time in improving Aurora, our two-seated solar powered vehicle, including the new steering column as well as improved suspension, chassis, electrical components, vehicle body and a whole new and more efficient solar array.  

I look forward to competing this summer at the Formula Sun Grand Prix in Kansas and the American Solar Challenge in Missouri. 

My experiences on the Solar Racing Team are priceless. Synthesizing your own design from scratch and manufacturing it within a budget is an extremely important skill to have. It is also advantageous when searching for a job or internship, and helped me get ahead in some of my later coursework in design or machining.