Photograph by Dorothy Hong
In the fall of her first year at Barnard, Sakina Pasha ’13 was intrigued by a flyer that advertised Knickerbocker Motorsports, a student group based at Columbia that designs and builds a high-performance racecar each year for international competitions.“I didn’t know anything about cars, but I’ve always been interested in building things,” says Pasha, who worked on many home-improvement projects with her mother while growing up in Phoenix.
Today, Pasha is the president of the club, and her election has made her a trailblazer—she is the club’s first female president, the first from Barnard, and the first non-engineer. A neuroscience major, Pasha is also involved in student government at the College. “I think there’s real value in opening up the club” to non-engineers, says Pasha, who led the club’s decision to change its constitution, which previously did not allow Barnard students to be board members.
Pasha joined the club with a friend; the two were the first Barnard students ever to participate. Pasha didn’t know what many of the tools in the club’s shop were, as they were nothing like the ones she had used at home to spackle, lay tile, and strip carpet. But she quickly learned about car design and construction, as well as the management challenge of organizing a complicated engineering project executed by 20 students, many of whom spend as many as 40 hours a week working on the club’s car. “I latched on to people and took in as much as I could,” she says.
Her outlook as a non-engineer has benefitted the team, according to Miguel Rodriguez, the club’s chief engineer and a Columbia senior. “She is not afraid to question an engineering choice, which almost always ends up with us realizing something we didn’t see before,” he explains. “She always says, ‘You only really know your car system when you are able to clearly explain it to a non-engineer.’”
Providing an explanation of the car’s design is a key element of the annual competition the club enters, the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers Competition, which takes place in late spring at the Michigan International Speedway; 120 universities are eligible to participate. In addition to racing, the team makes presentations on the car’s design and cost to judges who are engineers and consultants from major racing groups and auto companies. “You have to defend the design, to know why each part is on the car,” says Pasha. The presentation includes a listing of the car’s 500 parts, their prices, and labor costs.
The club gives the students hands-on experience in project management, analysis, and fundraising, in addition to car design and testing, says the club’s faculty advisor Robert Stark, lab manager in Columbia’s mechanical engineering department. He describes Pasha as “the glue that binds the team together. She is very well-organized and a forceful personality.” Her selection as president provides inspiration to other women. “The need to encourage female students to get involved in a hardcore engineering project like this one is very important,” he adds.
About a quarter of the club’s members are women. Pasha’s leadership has changed the atmosphere, pushing members “to open themselves up to people who don’t know as much about cars” but have other valuable organizational and business skills as well as a desire to learn, Pasha says.
Pasha is thinking about a career in engineering management, a field she hadn’t previously considered. Leading Knickerbocker Motorsports “tested my abilities to manage a group of people,” she says. “I wasn’t aware that I had the skills to do so.”