A student of mathematical physics, Stella has a vision for better travel. She would like to see airports connected by a new high-speed transportation system known as Hyperloop to help people travel between cities in rapid times, potentially reducing the environmental burden created by domestic flights.
“I’ve been asked the question before, why connect airports if they’re already connected?” she says. “But we’re talking about significantly higher frequencies of departures. There are Hyperloop companies at the moment claiming departure times of every two minutes, so significantly more departures than flights between airports.
“You could essentially create a mega airport in the UK that would make the country a hub for travel. That would also increase connectivity and increase the ability of people to travel between cities that are quite far apart, in very short times. This would make it a lot easier to distribute the burden of flights among airports, so things like an extension to Heathrow wouldn’t be necessary and domestic flights – which are the least environmentally friendly of all – become a bit redundant.”
The future of travel
Hyperloop is a proposed mode of travel, popularised by entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2013 with the Hyperloop Alpha research paper. The concept offers an alternative to high-speed rail but instead of trains that run on tracks on the ground, it sees pods carrying people or goods travelling through elevated tubes at speeds of potentially 1000km an hour or more.
Several companies around the world are developing Hyperloop technology but there is also a very active student community innovating in the field, coming together to showcase their Hyperloop proposals and prototypes at global events.
The power of student societies
Stella developed her idea to connect airports using Hyperloop systems as a research proposal as part of the University’s HYPED student society. However, prior to starting at Edinburgh, she had never heard of the concept.
“I discovered the HYPED society entirely by chance. I was walking through the societies fair in Welcome Week and someone told me, these are cool people, go talk to them, so I did. I talked to someone who told me about Hyperloop and what the team does and I thought that sounded quite interesting, so I went to their welcome event and I thought there were quite a few interesting things to learn here,” she says.
Stella joined the research team, and the software team to learn coding skills, and not long after she was asked if she would be interested in running for the position of Research Director, which she was later appointed to. Soon, she became President, a position she holds today, overseeing a membership of 120 students.
Innovative award winners
HYPED has been operating at the University since 2015 and is widely considered to be one of the best student Hyperloop teams in the UK having received awards from SpaceX, Virgin Hyperloop and the Institution of Civil Engineers. Past members of HYPED have interned with global companies including NASA, SpaceX and Google.
Edinburgh’s student-led team is dedicated to Hyperloop development in three ways. The technical team builds Hyperloop pod prototypes, which are taken to competitions, such as the European Hyperloop Week.
The research team prepares the groundwork for innovation, developing route proposals, such as Stella’s proposal for connecting airports, or their award-winning proposal linking London to Edinburgh in 55 minutes, as well as feasibility studies for different technical approaches.
A third team focuses on outreach, developing ways to raise awareness of Hyperloop technology for public audiences and also reaching out to young people, using Hyperloop as a way to engage young people with STEM subjects and careers.
“It’s new and exciting and it feels like we’re doing something that hasn’t strictly been done before. We are right there at the edge of innovation, and it feels like we’re contributing to something that is real and meaningful. One day we could all be on a Hyperloop together and I just think it’s exciting to get to see it develop,” says Stella.
Building critical skills as well as infrastructure
“We’re offering all of the students that participate in HYPED a very good learning experience, both in terms of engineering practices but also research, public speaking and leadership skills. When I became President, my goal was to leave it better than I found it – not that I found it in a bad state, but I think this is a goal we should all have: to take what we’re given and make it bigger and better.”
One ambition Stella would like to see HYPED achieve is the installation of a new test track at King’s Buildings. The track would enable students to push even more boundaries and put Edinburgh firmly on the map as a centre for student-led Hyperloop innovation.
“This would be a 100-metre-long test track where we could run our prototypes, and to our knowledge it could be the first Hyperloop test track in the UK,” says Stella.
“It would give us the opportunity to adjust our engineering processes to match what the reality would look like in industry, and it would also mean that we could hold events with the public on campus where we showcase our work, and potentially host the European Hyperloop Week.”
This ambition is edging closer to becoming a reality. Permission has been granted to build the track, and some of the funds have been raised. The team is just waiting to find out the extent of the initial foundation work that needs to happen to be able to raise the remaining funding.
For Stella, seeing the test track become a reality would be the perfect swansong for her HYPED career. She will be stepping away from the President role soon to focus on her final year, preparing for a future research career in physics. However, her HYPED experience has prepared her well for whatever lies ahead.
Learning outside lecture halls
“In all of my positions in HYPED I have learned something new. My experience in the software team was my first ever experience of coding and that was a great thing to learn. I’ve learned to manage a team – quite a large team of 120 students – and I’ve learned a lot of personal skills like time management and maintaining a work-life balance,” she says.
“Leadership has been a very interesting task and I’ve learned that different things work for different people, and you can’t be too rigid in the way you do things because the method that works for one person might not work for another. So it’s good to be flexible. In my position I get called upon to answer everyone’s questions and I’ve had to learn to make those decisions and do it with confidence and say this is how we’re doing and if it works it works and if it doesn’t, we’ll figure it out. I think that is a skill that I will value whatever I do in the future.
“I was never expecting the Hyperloop stuff and all of the leadership positions that came with it. I’ve learned a lot from being here and doing all of this and it’s nice looking back to the person who was moving to Edinburgh and was mildly terrified and see how far I’ve come and how much it feels like home. I have a life here now and it’s a good life.”