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Chariots of fire: Solar car race across America's heartland

About the writer: Michelle Yong

Michelle Yong
Michelle Yong

Flashback: A tired junior high science teacher pops in a videotape. In the ensuing darkness, amid note-passing and tittering, I follow the dream of a Hawaiian high school team to build and race a solar car.

Teamwork. Inspiration. Loss. Leadership. Sacrifice. Triumph. Cue the "Chariots of Fire" music.

Thanks to that teacher, I was probably living in an inspirational movie moment two years ago when I signed up for the UC Berkeley solar vehicle team. The sign read: "Learn how to machine and weld, build a solar car and race it across America." With my extra-thick idealist goggles on, I translated that as "Engineering, Environmentalism and Adventure."

Wow! Tinker with power tools and learn the insides of a solar car? Sign me up! Intrigued by math puzzles and books as a child, I long ago developed a zest for learning new things. I started piano lessons at four, later took up the violin, and am currently studying the carillon, AKA the bells in the Campanile. My other fascinations include art history, words, foreign languages, and watching modern dance and SF Ballet performances.

When I came to Berkeley, I chose to study engineering physics so that I could use the theory from physics to solve real-world engineering problems. My current interests include superconducting materials and the development of more efficient solar cells. I hope to attend graduate school for a doctoral degree.

When I'm not working on the Beam Machine (the official name of the CalSol car), I do research at the Advanced Light Source (ALS) at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. For the past year, I've been working on an image analysis program for the soft x-ray microscope, but this summer I'll start x-ray spectroscopy at another beamline within the ALS. Mixing technical ideas and aesthetics, I also design layouts for the UC Berkeley student magazine, California Engineer.

Although both of my parents are from Singapore, this summer I'll be traditionally American — embarking on a road trip and an adventure in foreign lands. In July, the CalSol team will join other collegiate teams from Canada and the United States in Austin, Tex., where we hope a week of intense "scrutineering" will qualify us to compete in the North American Solar Challenge. I'm fuelled at the prospect of meeting other teams, seeing their designs, and racing something I helped to build. Until then, I’ll be hearing "Chariots of Fire."