This engineer went from final exams to building the world’s fastest car in one week
Recent graduate and Bloodhound design engineer, Jenna Gaff, explains how she secured her dream job.
When Jenna Gaff sat watching Formula 1 as a child, she probably never imagined that one day she’d be helping someone to drive at 1000mph. But, then again, her ambitions started early on.
‘I was only about nine years old when Thrust SSC [the car that holds the current land speed record] was on the news,’ she says. ‘I just remember thinking “Wow, that’s amazing”.’
So when the latest attempt to break the record – the Bloodhound project – was announced while she was at university, Gaff was understandably thrilled. Three years later she had secured her dream job as a design engineer on the new supersonic car, starting full-time just one week after finishing her final exams.
It helped that Gaff had decided early on to act on her interest in high-speed technology, taking summer placements every year from the age of 15 in everything from engineering consultancy to maintenance at Glasgow airport. ‘Just hands-on mechanic-type work,’ she says. ‘Anything I could get my hands on really to get more experience.’
After arriving at Edinburgh University to study electrical and mechanical engineering, Gaff took a growing interest in computational fluid dynamics – an aspect of engineering crucial to a project like Bloodhound, where even a tiny miscalculation in the flow of air around the car could be the difference between success and failure.
Spotting a chance to use her expertise in this area as a way to pursue her dream, she took the initiative to write to Bloodhound and ask if she could complete her master’s project with the team.
‘At that time most of the students in my year were finding it tricky to get any employer to take them on because of the economic situation,’ she says. ‘I made sure my CV was job-specific and my covering letter explained where my passion stemmed from.
‘And things like the fact I was a student member of the IMecheE and actively involved in my university engineering society, little stuff like that shows you’re dedicated to getting to your end goal.’
During the project placement, Gaff was called on to complete a wide variety of drafting and CAD modelling projects. On her return to university for her final year, she offered to continue working on an area the team didn’t currently have the manpower for as part of her degree thesis.
This involved investigating the airflow in the bay of car, rear of driver, to help work out how the energy from the supersonic air and the 1000°C heat from the engine could be dispersed.
Gaff was also given the tantalising promise that if she proved herself with her thesis, she would be welcomed back to the project full-time. She must have done a pretty good job.
So what advice does she have for engineers with similarly lofty ambitions? ‘The key thing is to get as much hands-on experience as you possibly can,’ she says. ‘Get your hands dirty.’
Her other message is to not be afraid to talk to people, whether it’s your parents’ friends or older members of your student society, who might be able to tell you about an opportunity.
‘Just ask around and don’t assume anything because you never knew who you’re talking to,’ she says. ‘It’s amazing, if you just ask, how far you can get along the road.’