Tiny But Mighty: Emma Zeigler’s journey as a woman in engineering

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Groups of students gathered around their garage built off-road vehicles. Team members are quickly buckling their drivers into bucket seats cars that resemble mini go-karts for the acceleration test in sunny Tennessee that is about to begin.

The Baja Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) competition official instructs each team as to when it’s their turn to start their individual runs. The objective is easy. All the team’s driver needs to do is drive as fast as they can down the straight-away.

Four of UNLV’s Rebel Racing members stand with their driver as they wait for their turn. UNLV’s driver is covered from head to toe in enough protective gear to prevent injury in the case of a crash.

Rebel Racing is a student organized club that builds their own off-road vehicle. They travel their cart to different competitions across the nation and compete against other schools.

“Is that your driver?,” an official calls over to the team. “Well, get him in the car!” with a   sense of urgency in his voice.

All at once, four voices respond back to the official, “Actually, it’s a SHE.”

Emma Zeigler was buckled into UNLV’s off-road racing vehicle. The single seat car is squatted low to the ground with its plump tires sticking out past the frame. All that is visible from the front of the car is the red-tinged reflection from Zeigler’s goggles and the big white number 43 above her cockpit. When the official finally signals for Zeigler’s turn, she slams her foot on the gas and races towards the finish line.

“I do think it’s fun,” Zeigler said. “There’s only 16 of us going to competition, and it’s me and one other girl and then 14 boys. So, it’s kind of fun to be one of the girls and a driver.”

Zeigler is a senior mechanical engineering student at UNLV. This five foot nothing, bubbly but down-to-business woman decided to pursue this major because she always liked math and science, and feels that mechanical is broad enough it can be built upon in multiple different directions. 

She is interested in either being a part of a team that develops off-road racing vehicles or following her passion of mountain biking and getting into the manufacturing of mountain bikes after college.

Currently Zeigler is a mechanic and part of the leadership board for Rebel Racing- an engineering club whose other four officers are all men. The cart is not just judged on how well it drives. There are two competition days, a static day and a dynamic day.

Static days are when the judges inspect the design of the car, and the students give sales pitches that are presented to a panel of judges like in Shark Tank. Dynamic days are when the car’s maneuverability, brakes, speed, and endurance are tested.

During competition Zeigler is the steering subsystem lead. That means she is the one to go to if anything goes wrong with the steering during competitions. She also is the one to present her steering design to a panel of judges.

Due to the compact nature of the car, Zeigler drives for the acceleration and brake tests.

According to the Baja SAE Rochester Event Results, Rebel Racing took home ninth overall against 88 other universities.

Zeigler spent her first year of college in St George, Utah, at Dixie State University. While Dixie was exciting for Zeigler because she was out of Las Vegas, she quickly started to realize that their engineering program was not used to having women in the classroom. At the start of her freshman year, her classes would have five to six women attending and only two to three by the end of that year.

Zeigler said she struggled being in Dixie’s engineering program. The department was newer in Utah, resulting in a smaller program with few professors and minimal class options. She never felt like she fit in, and her peers often made her feel like she was less than them. 

COVID-19 was ultimately one of the deciding factors that resulted in Zeigler moving home, and she was happy to get away from this environment.

“Usually if there is a senior female student in engineering, they are used to being part of the minority in the group. I have never seen Emma have a problem speaking her mind or getting her opinion heard,” said Brendan O’Toole, UNLV Director of the Center for Materials and Structures, and the faculty advisor for Rebel Racing. 

“I think that since I’m not scared to show who I am and once they [other men in engineering] accept that then it flows and it works,” said Zeigler. “I’m not willing to back down. I stand up for what I believe in.”

Zeigler’s influence greatly affects the performance of other women on the team as well. Dhruv Luhar, President of Rebel Racing, said that he has seen the direct impact her leadership has had on other members. 

Autumn Demola is a general member for Rebel Racing. For Demola it was intimidating to join a club with mostly all men, but she said it was nice to have Zeigler around and to not be the only woman.

“Emma is really helpful. She doesn’t bring people down for not knowing how to do things,”

Demola said. “She always shows people how to do things the right way.”

Zeigler said her experience has been a better one at UNLV. While she still finds herself being one of five girls in a classroom, she feels more appreciated. Even with the long hours and rigorous workload, Zeigler feels rewarded by the connections she has made in the club. 

Since joining in January to gain hands-on experience in the engineering field, Zeigler has become the Secretary for Rebel Racing. She handles the background tasks that keep the group’s wheels moving.

“When things get stressful,” Luhar said, “she keeps us grounded.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Great article about our wonderful Grand-daughter, Emma Jette Zeigler!!!. She is so enthusiastic about all she is learning in her engineering program and has great plans for her future in her field. We are so very proud of our Emma !!!

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