"Why a Solar Car team?" - Graduating team director, Arslan Aziz, discusses the learning, growth, and passion that fuels the team

Why a Solar Car Team?

Is a solar car a useful problem to tackle? Why do students dedicate so much time to it? And why is a
biomedical engineer working on the team? (hey that’s me!)

Here is my answer to “Why Solar Car?”

The first reason is why not? Seriously.

The second reason is apparent at competition, in the sweltering heat of the racing pits among excited yet exhausted students running between the car, the track, and the garage in a dance to drive their car to first place. It is the camaraderie between the teams, the passion of the “ray”-cers, and the complexity of the technical feat that is a full-sized, solar-powered vehicle.

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Four years ago, a friend invited me to a project meeting in a Clemons library cubicle, upon entering which I was greeted by six people, the nascent Solar Car Team at the University of Virginia (UVA). I worked in diverse roles from CAD design to operations and really began to appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit and ambitions of the Team. I quickly came to realize that there were few other organizations at UVA where individuals had such significant design freedom as well as ability to make real impact. On the Solar Car Team, we make our impact via our mission to (i) use the solar car as the ultimate hands-on learning challenge for engineering and business students, and (ii) to elevate the status of the University and community in national competition.

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On the Solar Car Team, we’ve created a space to pursue nearly unlimited engineering and operations endeavors purely on student initiative. Every day on the Team, students apply principles from the classroom to real problems with real constraints, and build a practical solution toward a greater mission. Every day on the Team, students build personal relationships with potential sponsors to bring in thousands of dollars of funding and new partnerships for the University. And only on the Team there is enough cross-talk between the engineering and business operations to create a holistic, hands-on experience for all members.

In an effort to combine my deep respect for UVA and channel my passion for the Solar Car Team, I stepped up to the Team Lead role, and then Engineering Director. My leadership on the Team molded my University experience, my character, and my future outlook.

I encourage other students to pursue this passion because (i) you learn in a unique collaborative environment beyond the traditional university experience and (ii) you have an opportunity to make UVA a better place. However, you receive as much from the Team as you give. It can be difficult to associate your identity with the Team because of its rigor and time commitment. Yes, you’ll be hard-pressed to commit time to other clubs when you’re on the Team. No, you’ll not be designing solar cars when you graduate. Yet, members of our Team grow into leaders who secure top internships, jobs, and graduate positions after leaving UVA, with the satisfaction of having contributed to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a solar-powered car!

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I myself faced some of these identity issues between my full-time commitment to Solar Car and my academic identity in the biomedical sciences. As a biomedical engineering major and researcher, I found these two worlds difficult to reconcile for some time. Students at UVA have high ambitions and sometimes that can fool us to believe that we need to craft a perfect career. However, there is no such thing as a perfect anything. Let Solar Car be a part of your story, and you will explore diverse interests, learn skills to excel in your future endeavors, and make an impact at your university.

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I would give the following advice to first and second years as well as new members considering the Solar Car Team:
1. Accept that your academic/career path does not need to “make sense”. Seize the opportunities
of the moment and let your interests and passions define your identity instead of trying to force
the future.
2. Compare your current self to who you were yesterday, not to other people.
3. Always take opportunities, whatever they may be, that challenge you to grow and learn.
4. Trust your gut feeling. Your internal motivations are more important than external pressures.
5. Take chances, be wrong, and fail. Fail really bad if it comes to it. Reflect on your mistakes and try
again.

Arslan will join Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Campus this summer for a 10-week research program in biomedical computer vision. In the fall he will join Logistics Management Institute (LMI) full-time as a data scientist.