“Things they teach you in the classroom don’t matter until you have a chance to apply them.” So says Julia Cline, an incredibly bright and impressive woman. And for the past three years, Julia has been doing quite a bit of applying.
In the Fall of 2010, two students at The Ohio State University, Sean Ewing and Kyle Ginaven, had a dream of competing in the newly-created TT Zero class at the Isle of Man TT Races, one of the oldest and most prestigious motorcycle races in the world. The class was designed, according to the regulations, for “motorcycles to be powered without the use of carbon based fuels and have zero toxic/noxious emissions.” They posted an advertisement on campus, seeking students who would be interested in helping them build an electric sportbike. Eventually, they were successful in creating what is now called Buckeye Current, an electric motorcycle team founded through the university’s Center for Automotive Research.
“I saw the posting and I immediately signed up,“ says Cline, a non-traditional undergraduate Electrical and Computer Engineering student who already holds bachelors and Masters degrees in Music Education and Curriculum and Instruction. “For the first year, I was essentially a wrench monkey, working on the bike itself, doing whatever needed to be done.” The first bike they engineered was called RW-1, which started life as a 2007 MV Agusta F4. Fitted with an electric motor, motor controller, and battery pack, RW-1 set a collegiate electric motorcycle top speed record in 2011 of 112.349 MPH in Maxton, NC, piloted by Jennifer Holt, an Ohio State grad student and experienced motorcyclist.
“The bike originally had batteries designed for RC airplanes,” laughs Cline. “Loads of them.” In Autumn 2011, Cline became a co-leader of the team with Ginaven and completely reorganized and restructured the team. RW-1 was fitted with new lithium cobalt batteries, and the team designed, built, and tested the new battery back with the specific purpose of achieving maximum speeds.
In July of 2012, Current took RW-1 to the Mile Track in Wilmington, Ohio, with the goal of achieving 150 MPH. With its new battery pack and Holt at the controls, RW-1 fell just short but set another speed record of 144.352 MPH.
Having set straight line speed records, Cline and the team refocused on the original goal of Ewing and Ginaven- The Isle of Man TT Races. They built a new bike, codenamed RW-2, which had been a 2006 Honda CBR 1000RR in a past life. The Australian motor controller was taken from RW-1, a new lightweight EMRAX motor was purchased from Slovenia, and the team developed a battery management system which governed the new battery modules from Chinese sponsor Advanced Energy. Current had contacted Suzuki Great Britain World Superbikes rider (and 2009 TT Zero winner) Rob “The Bullet” Barber in 2011 to see if he would be interested in riding RW-1 in the Isle of Man TT, and although RW-1 never made it the TT, Barber stayed in contact with Cline and they came to an agreement to have him be at the helm of RW-2 for the 2013 TT.
The Isle of Man TT Races are held on quite possibly the most difficult motorcycle course in the world, the 37.8-mile long Mountain Course. Every obstacle imaginable can be found—walls, poles, jumps, bridges, manholes—you name it, the Mountain Course has it. It would take a racer of Barber’s capabilities to not only successfully navigate the course, but to do it in a fashion that would achieve Current’s goal for the bike—an average speed of 100 miles per hour and a podium finish. Cline and the rest of the Current team packed up RW-2 and headed across the ocean for the TT, where Barber raced around the course to qualify at an average speed of 91 MPH.
“Every bike has a transponder, but the electrical interference coming from these bikes is very strong,” explains Cline. “The only accurate measurement the officials can really get is the time crossing the Start Line and again crossing the Finish Line.”
The next day’s race saw Barber and RW-2 claim a third-place podium finish, besting all other university teams and four professional outfits with an average speed of 90.43 MPH. As a result, Current became the first university team in the history of the event to break the 90 MPH barrier. Cline says that she’s not even close to being finished with RW-2, though.
“We’re now in the process of evolving the bike. The new project is called RW-2.x. In my new role as technical team lead, I now have a very high-end view of design integration and project management. For instance, we are working to obtain new battery sponsorship that meets our motor controller’s technical requirements and our team goals. However, as a senior at OSU, my engineering capstone project involves me writing a new code for a CAN interface, so that we can translate analog information from the thermistors, battery cells, GPS, suspension travel and other readings into digital information that the data recorder can understand. We’re using a Texas Instruments Piccolo chip with C-based software, and some of our own circuitry designs for additional hardware.” Cline is clearly not your typical female student, and I asked her about her role as a female ECE, not only for Current but in her internship role as a Quality Engineer at a Tier 1 Honda supplier.
“There just aren’t as many female engineers in the automotive workplace as there are male engineers—and that’s okay. If there were, I’d be concerned about the draw to the industry, because we don’t make up nearly as much of the engineering student population. I’ve seen statistics showing that Ohio State has a record enrollment of females in the engineering fields, something like 18%. However, not many of those women are choosing Mechanical or Electrical Engineering. They’re more likely to choose Bio-Medical or Industrial Systems. Of the twenty-five Buckeye Current team members, only two of us are women engineering students.
“So, yes, I am an anomaly, but I’ve managed to make a place for myself where I’m respected by my colleagues. Oddly enough, I feel like I’m more accepted by the older generation of engineers than I am by the younger generation, which seems backwards to me. Maybe it’s because the older ones have had more opportunities to work with women? Maybe I’m just older in general. Things have to be done right and they have to be done fast. In our world, that’s all that really matters.”
When I asked Cline what her biggest challenges were, she responded candidly:
“Funding. One of the biggest strengths I brought to the team was my prior fundraising experience from working in the music and not-for-profit industry. We get limited funding from the University. While CAR is able to provide us an office and a place work on the bike, they only give us a little money for materials. So everything else in our race-focused design-built-test cycle has to come from the outside. For example, we lost our battery sponsor, so we’re actively seeking a new one as we speak.
“Also, since we are nearly all undergraduates, that means we graduate our best talent yearly. We are constantly losing our most qualified people and constantly having to train new members of the team. This is an all-volunteer team. They get paid nothing. They receive no college credit. But the hands-on experience that I have gotten has been the real prize. We’ve been exposed to the highest-caliber professional racing teams in the world, and we’ve competed with and beaten them.”
This Life of Julia has taken her around the world, and her ingenuity and team leadership has won her several awards, including the Arcelor Mittal Leadership Award, presented to her at the 33rd annual Women in Engineering Recognition Banquet earlier this year. Cline is set to graduate soon, and while there’s no doubt she’ll be missed by the team, some lucky automaker is going to get their hands on one hell of an engineer.