Graduate students create connections through Badgerloop

By Meghan Chua

Badgerloop is the UW–Madison team competing in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competitions. The team is currently gearing up for the third iteration of the competition, which tests the speed teams can achieve with their hyperloop pods, and will reveal its latest pod design on Thursday, April 19 in Union South.

Though Badgerloop is unique among the teams competing in the hyperloop competition due to its mainly undergraduate membership, graduate students are also working with the team toward its ultimate goal of creating faster travel for the future. Here is how two current graduate students have been involved in Badgerloop.

Zuf Wang, master’s student, Industrial Engineering
Zuf Wang
Master’s student Zuf Wang works on a crane lift point for the first Badgerloop pod as an undergraduate in May 2016. Wang was elected as the team’s president in 2017. (Photo courtesy Zuf Wang)

Zuf Wang was a junior when he found out about the Badgerloop team in February 2016. At the time, the team needed someone to standardize and oversee its purchasing procedures, and Wang stepped up to the task. He focused on supply chain management, making sure the team was able to get the right parts for the hyperloop pod at the right prices and at the right time.

As he worked with Badgerloop and wrapped up his undergraduate career studying industrial engineering, Wang realized he wasn’t yet ready to leave UW–Madison.

“I felt that I had only scratched the surface of what I wanted to learn,” he says.

He stayed on for a fifth year to complete a master’s degree with a focus in system engineering and analytics. In Fall 2016, the Badgerloop team elected Wang to serve as president for Competition II. As president, Wang was responsible for the team’s performance, from qualifying for the competition, to ensuring the pod was tested, to making sure the team and the pod would make it to the competition in California and back safely.

He oversaw fundraising, recruiting, and networking, making sure the team had the talent to build and test a pod, and the network to reach out to professors and local industry experts when they needed help. He also guided key decisions with team leads, such as whether to build a component in-house or outsource it for a fee.

The Badgerloop team, shown in August 2017 with an award
The Badgerloop team won an Innovation Award in the second hyperloop competition in August 2017. (Photo courtesy Zuf Wang)

“It’s a series of decisions that the whole team has to make together to make sure that what we design is something that we can actually build, and what we build is something that actually works,” he said.

While his term as the team’s president has since ended, Wang has stayed on as a helper-advisor to the team, captured by the collaboration and community that Badgerloop has fostered. Badgerloop is a lifestyle, Wang says, and being at the team’s headquarters feels like home to him.

“I wish to see more endeavors like Badgerloop happen on the campus of this university. It doesn’t have to be engineering; it could be anything that really requires a collaborative effort of people across major disciplines,” he says. “Badgerloop really embodies the idea that, together, Wisconsin students are more than capable of making a dent on the international stage.”

Mike Schlicting, master’s student, Transportation Administration and Community Development
Mike Schlicting
Graduate student Mike Schlicting is the feasibility team lead for Badgerloop. (Photo courtesy Mike Schlicting)

Prior to starting graduate school at UW–Madison, Mike Schlicting worked for United Airlines. During a business trip to Japan, he and his colleagues rode a bullet train – an experience that planted a seed of thought for Schlicting. What if, instead of relying on short plane trips from Milwaukee to Chicago, passengers and airlines had a high-speed train to use for “flights”?

The idea took Schlicting, a MS student working toward a special committee degree in Transportation Administration and Community Development, down a track of multidisciplinary approaches to studying how transportation systems impact the areas in which they’re built.

His master’s thesis explores how the increase in real estate values that follows transportation improvements in an area can pay back the cost of that transportation development. Schlicting plans to apply to a PhD program at UW–Madison to further continue his research.

Schlicting has taken courses in everything from entrepreneurship to public policy to real estate, and has formed a vast network across campus of individuals knowledgeable about railways. He helped to re-launch a student organization called Badger Rail Society, which focuses on high-speed railways, and naturally fell into a friendship with the Badgerloop group.

In Spring 2016, Schlicting joined Badgerloop as the lead member of its feasibility team, looking at big-picture considerations: what would it look like to build, pay for, and travel in a Hyperloop? It made total sense to combine research from both the high-speed rail group and the Hyperloop team, Schlicting says.

“It turns out, all the studies for high-speed rail are applicable to Hyperloop; the only difference is the technology,” he says. “As far as routes and economic activity that would be created from it, they’re exactly the same.”

Mike Schlicting
Schlicting studies transportation administration and community development. One of his projects explores how airlines could use high-speed rail to make regional “flights” more reliable and affordable. (Photo courtesy Mike Schlicting)

Schlicting says the power of the student organization network at UW–Madison can sometimes be overlooked, but that network has played an integral part in his graduate education.

“You typically have the most passionate students involved with student orgs, and they have a network connection as well,” he says.

Once he earns his PhD, Schlicting could work in government and policy, research in a university setting, or bring his skills to private industry. But the ultimate goal he hopes to accomplish is to build a high-speed rail in the U.S. – a goal he admits is far-reaching, but becoming more feasible as research on the technology continues.

“I believe what I’m doing is the Wisconsin Idea in action,” Schlicting says. “That’s the way I look at it: taking what we do at the university and spreading it around the state, at 220 miles per hour.”