A female voice in a male-dominated field


Elyssa Kaufman

Violet Kamber works with the Formula SAE team to build and race their car.

By Elyssa Kaufman, Staff Writer

For Violet Kamber, junior in Engineering, being one of the few females in the male-dominated industry of aerospace has been her reality since high school. Joining the University’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers team was no different.

“I felt a little out of place, but I knew that I still wanted to join the team,” Kamber said.

Formula SAE is a competition that involves designing and building a racecar, all done by the students themselves. Members compete in two competitions in the U.S. each year.

At the competition this past summer in Nebraska, the team placed first in the acceleration event and sixth overall out of around 120 entries. At the past competition in Michigan, the team placed second in their business presentation for the second year in a row.

The University’s Formula SAE team is named “Illini Motorsports.” Illini Motorsports designs and builds a racecar each year and participates in two annual competitions.

Within Illini Motorsports, Kamber is part of the aerodynamics and composite teams. There are seven subsystems on Formula SAE that work together to design and build the car.

Kamber spends around two hours a week working with the team. She said her role on the team changes based on the season. She prefers the spring season, because that is when her subsystem gets to manufacture and build the car before the competition, she said.

Kamber has been involved with Formula SAE since her freshman year, after one of her learning assistants in class first introduced her to the club.

“I feel like (Formula SAE) has opened plenty of doors,” Kamber said. “I thought, ‘Why not combine my passion for engineering with something else that I like?’ It’s been awesome.”

Early on, Kamber said she knew she had talent in math and science when she attended the Bartlett High School Academy for Science, Engineering and High Technology. She then followed the engineering path when applying to schools and felt the University of Illinois was a “no-brainer.”

“I have always had a passion for engineering, and I have always liked cars,” she said. “As a kid, I looked up to my brother, so this meant playing Forza on Xbox or building Lego sets or model cars.”

Kamber said she was nervous showing up to the first general meeting for Illini Motorsports because she could not find any girls. She is now one of the few female members on the team.

Kamber said the lack of female engineers is something she experienced in high school as well. She said her high school reflected the male-dominated field she would soon be entering.

“I don’t think women should get discouraged,” Kamber said. “To me, it’s the kind of thing that motivates me to do better because, man or woman, we are all here to learn.”

Elyssa Kaufman
Portrait of Violet Kamber. Kamber is a member of the University’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers team, called Illini Motorsports. Illini Motorsports designs and builds a racecar each year and participates in two annual competitions.

Team leaders

Jake Leonard, senior in Engineering, said he also finds the lack of females on the team to be a downside of the industry.

“It’s a vicious cycle when you have 40 people and three girls,” he said. “It’s obviously going to be like a ‘boy’s club,’ which makes it really intimidating for people to join,” he said.

However, Leonard is hopeful that with more outreach to women involved in engineering organizations, more female members could be involved.

As the head of the electronics subsystem, Leonard said he is responsible for every electron in the car, which involves creating custom circuit boards that perform various roles in the car. Some of the roles include power distribution, gearbox control, data acquisition and telemetry. There is a custom steering wheel and other elements that are all designed and manufactured in-house.

Leonard said the electronic integration process involves manufacturing many wiring harnesses from scratch.

“It’s a really cool learning experience I have had,” he said. “There are a lot of really complicated, cool projects that you can do to really get a lot of hands-on experience with engineering. This club is the reason I decided to take the engineering path I did.”

Motorsports’ electronics are very expensive. Leonard said some of the products cost around $5,000 for a single unit.

“We decided that instead of spending all that money, we can just make our own (products),” Leonard said.

He said a circuit board will usually be an individual’s project for the year due to the time commitment. With experience, Leonard said the members become more skilled at making the circuit boards.

Along with the hardware component, there is also a programming element to the circuit boards. All of the circuit boards have microcontrollers, which are basic processors. All of the code running on the microcontrollers is written and maintained by the subsystem.

“You have to upload code to them to actually make them do what you want,” Leonard said. “We have a large code base that a lot of people have contributed to, and we use that in order to program the boards.”

Ben Williams, senior in Engineering, serves as drivetrain leader on the Formula SAE team. As such, he is responsible for the differential — the hub assemblies and the brake systems. He said the addition of the anti-lock braking system is his team’s newest addition this year.

The highlight of William’s experience has been the competition last year.

“I feel like our team really came together pretty well, especially for the static events,” he said. “Last year, we had an all-time high in static event score. That was pretty awesome, considering it validated all the effort we put into improving how we design the car.” 

The future

On top of her work with the team, Kamber said she has made close friends and connections.

“They are always there to motivate me because we spend hours together,” Kamber said.

Internship offers have also been a result of Kamber’s involvement in the Formula SAE competition team. She said the team has great ties with sponsors and successful job placement with alumni.

This upcoming summer, Kamber will be interning for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in Aerothermal at the Wind Tunnel, and she credits her opportunity to Formula SAE.

“I know employers really like seeing hands-on experience and having motivated workers,” she said, “so it’s a big plus when they look at resumes at career fairs and engineering expositions and see any of the Illini Motorsports.”

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