Alumni Spotlight: Eva Hakansson’s Drive to Break Down Barriers
Eva Hakansson graduated from the University of Denver with a PhD in Mechanical Engineering in the Spring of 2016. Not only are her scholarly achievements impressive, but also her endeavors outside of the classroom. The DU alum currently holds the title of being the world’s fastest female motorcycle rider. What’s more, Hakansson built the record-holding electric streamliner motorcycle, dubbed “KillaJoule,” herself! Although Hakansson has a major engineering accomplishment under her belt, Mechanical Engineering was not the first academic path she embarked on. In the following interview with us, Eva discusses her academic journey and goals for the future.
What made you realize that you wanted to pursue degrees in engineering after earning an undergraduate degree in Business? Why the move from Sweden to the U.S.?
Love had brought me from Sweden to Colorado eight years ago. With me I brought an undergraduate degree in business from Sweden. But, everybody else in my family is an engineer, and they were a bit disappointed that I had chosen the business track instead. In hindsight, it would have made more sense for me to get an engineering degree. However, moving to Colorado presented a chance to start over and make that dream reality.
What was your favorite part about attending the University of Denver – Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science?
One of the great benefits of DU is its flexibility when it comes to unconventional students like me. I was enrolled in a master’s program instead of an undergraduate program. After my first year with a very generous Dean’s scholarship, I was given the opportunity to work my way through school as a Teaching Assistant and Research Assistant. It may sound like a cliché these days, but if you are willing to work hard, the United States is the land of opportunity. I consider myself a prime example of that.
How did you balance school work with building the KillaJoule?
Well, it is no secret that I am a workaholic. I simply enjoy to work, particularly if it included hands-on work and challenging engineering problems. My husband says that I am like a border collie, if I don’t have something to do constantly, I will start chewing on the furniture.
You may think that racing an electric motorcycle would have nothing to do with your academic work. It may just seem like a waste of precious time. But it turned out to be so much more than a hobby; it turned out to be a catalyst for learning. Racing, education, and my academic research became all intertwined. What I learned in class was directly applicable in the design and construction of my vehicle, while building helped me really understand the material in class. It took the words off the page and into a real project. A project that had to work and had to perform on the race day, because there are no partial credits in real life. It either works, or it doesn’t work. The work also made me appreciate kind of obscure knowledge such as the phase diagram for steel. Understanding that turns out to be super important in welding.
I can truly say that racing helped me pursue my PhD. Much of my PhD work included building instruments and testing equipment. I couldn’t have done that without the experience I gained in building my racing motorcycle.
What did it feel like to finally graduate with a PhD?
Wonderful! It was even more wonderful than I expected. It may sound silly, but all the little things like changing my frequent flyer card from “Mrs.” to “Dr.” and printing new business cards are really enjoyable. I would recommend anybody graduating with a master’s degree to also consider a PhD if their personal and financial situation allows for it. I did not regret enrolling in the PhD program, and they will not either. A PhD opens so many new doors, but you don’t really understand how many these doors are and how important they are until you have graduated.
What are you doing now career-wise? How has attending the university helped you in your career?
Attending DU has meant everything for me! Without an engineering degree I would have been nowhere close to where I am now. When I started my engineering education, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. Studying engineering as opposed to just tinkering in my garage opened a whole new world for me.
I am consulting for the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (the international motorsport federation) and authoring the new safety rules for speed record attempts. I would have never received this very important job without an engineering degree. I am also a brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker and featured in their campaign “Joy Will Take You Further”. The message in the campaign is that it is the joy and happiness in your work that will make you successful; it is not the success that makes you happy.
I am also preparing for new speed records attempts in late August. I would really like to see 300 mph on the speedometer this year. There are only a handful motorcycles in the world that has been over 300 mph, and I want to join that exclusive club. Racing is of course not a paid job, quite the opposite. It is a complete money pit. I wouldn’t have had a mortgage on the house if I wasn’t racing… But it brings so much pleasure and fulfillment that it is worth any penny.
I am also working on several new very exciting projects, but I am not allowed to reveal any of them right now. However, they may include both an electrically powered aircraft as well as a series manufactured powerful electric motorcycle for street use… I can’t tell you more than that.
A private pilot license is also on the to-do-list, but I am not sure I will be able to finish it this year.
You already have so many accomplishments! What are your goals as of now?
My overall mission in life is to advocate for sustainability in general and for sustainable transportation in particular. But my mission is also to show that eco-friendly can be fast and fun, and that horsepower and driving pleasure is not in conflict with sustainability. By building insanely fast electric vehicles, I get the attention from people that never would consider anything marketed as “eco-friendly,” and make them realize that sustainable transportation doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. I call it “eco-activism in disguise.”
I am currently the world’s fastest female motorcycle rider, but records are just borrowed, never owned. It is just a matter of time until somebody else will take that title. I will have to work hard to keep it. However, being the fastest female was never my final goal. My dream is to become the fastest motorcycle rider. Period. Right now there are six guys that are faster than I am, and the fastest of them is more than 100 mph ahead of me (he is at almost 400 mph). However, battery power can easily beat internal combustion when it comes to top speed; all it takes is a bit of know-how and a fairly big budget.
An attempt on the overall motorcycle speed record (currently 376 mph) would require a new motorcycle with larger motor and larger battery pack. The KillaJoule simply doesn’t have the needed space for the drive train. I have a new bike on the drawing board; we will see next year if it became reality. Being the fastest motorcycle rider in the world with a motorcycle that I designed and built myself, and not just the fastest female, would be really important for my other mission: to show that girls can be outstanding engineers. There are so many girls and women that think they cannot pursue a career in STEM just because they are female. I find that very sad, both because they miss out on well-paid, satisfying jobs, and because the world misses out on competent people with important ideas. Because of this, many women are trapped in low-qualified, low-paying jobs that prevents them from gaining independence. More women in STEM would mean better equality overall.
I have also applied to NASA’s astronaut program, but so have 18,000 other highly qualified individuals. I am certainly not holding my breath.