This story originally appeared on the Collegiate Wind Competition website.
For many of us, 2020 was a year of dramatic change. But Annika Torp already knew she’d be making some major adjustments that year as she shifted to a new path of study.
During her early years at Johns Hopkins University, Torp started her undergraduate studies with the goal of becoming an aerospace professional. She majored in mechanical engineering and learned about jet propulsion and aerospace structures, became the vice president of the Hopkins rocketry team, and gained experience through an internship at a defense company where she worked on aircraft improvements. However, in her second year, Torp felt a strong pull towards a different career path.
“I realized how pressing an issue climate change is, and I wanted to be part of the solution,” Torp said. “I started wondering how I could take what I’d learned from my mechanical engineering classes and extracurriculars and apply it to a career in renewable energy or sustainability.”
Torp kept her mechanical engineering major but started taking classes that focused on energy and sustainability. Then, in early 2020, she attended a meeting to recruit Hopkins students for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Collegiate Wind Competition (CWC).
“Our team president, Willa Grinsfelder, researched the CWC herself with help from another student, Owen Friesen,” Torp recalled. “Willa presented it as an option for our senior design project, which wasn’t that far away. The competition sounded like a great way for me to see what the renewable energy industry was like, so I signed up with Willa and Owen to be the turbine design subteam leads for the Hopkins team.”
As the founding members of the Hopkins Student Wind Energy Team, Torp and her teammates had a steep road ahead of them. The 2020–2021 school year—Torp’s senior year—was Hopkins’s first time participating in the CWC, which meant Torp and her teammates had to build their entire team from scratch. On top of that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hopkins held all classes remotely the first half of that school year, and engineering students were unable to access the laboratories they typically relied on for tools and working spaces.
Still, under the founding team members’ leadership, the Hopkins team soldiered on, with Torp leading the electronics and controls group for the turbine design subteam. The team reviewed team reports from previous competitions to find out what approaches had been successful in the past, had regular virtual meetings to share their progress and troubleshoot issues, and found guidance in their industry mentors.
“As a new team, it took a huge amount of self-directed work to establish ourselves,” Torp said. “Luckily, we had determined, enthusiastic team leaders, and there were lots of students at Hopkins who wanted to sink their teeth into renewable energy, which motivated all of us to do our best.”
Despite the challenges they faced, the team’s eagerness and motivation paid off. At the CWC 2021 final event that spring—which was also held remotely—Hopkins took home second place overall.
Reflecting on her time in the CWC, Torp is grateful for the hands-on insight into the wind energy industry that the competition offered.
“I learned that the wind industry is broader than I assumed at first,” Torp said. “With the CWC’s interdisciplinary structure, I learned that there are so many different roles you can play. You can be a mechanical or electrical engineer. You can be a project developer. You can be a project manager. You can oversee finances. You can work in public relations and help a wind project have a good relationship with the surrounding community.”
She not only learned these roles exist; Torp also learned how to do them, adding, “I appreciated that CWC has the three contests—Turbine Design, Project Development, and Connection Creation—so students can experience different aspects of the wind industry.”
Torp also found that her CWC experience boosted her confidence—both as an engineer and as a leader—and solidified her ambition to pursue a career in renewable energy.
“Working on the CWC, I proved to myself that I was actually quite a capable engineer,” Torp said. “And I tried to inspire the freshmen and sophomores on my subteam to prove to themselves that they were also capable engineers with something to contribute. And I learned that I definitely wanted to work in renewable energy.”
Torp’s Post-CWC Path
After all the tribulations of her senior year, Torp had plenty of reasons to celebrate in spring 2021. Not only did she help lead the Hopkins Student Wind Energy Team to a second-place win; she also finished her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Torp, being part of Hopkins’s 5-year combined Bachelor of Science/Master of Science in Engineering program, had taken undergraduate- and graduate-level classes at the same time. So, by the time she completed the CWC, she had only 1 more year of classes before achieving a master’s degree as well.
That summer, she began an internship at Oceaneering, an engineering services company, where she supported research on underwater remotely operated vehicles. She graduated with her master’s degree in spring 2022, with a focus on fluid mechanics and energy, and just a few months later, she landed a job as a blade aerodynamics engineer at Siemens Gamesa’s Boulder, Colorado, office.
“When I was in grad school, I told my advisor, ‘If I could do any job in the world, I would design airfoils for wind turbine blades,’” said Torp. “I have done exactly that at my current position and so much more. The classes I took, my experience with aerospace, and my experience leading a CWC subteam made me a good candidate for my job. Everything I learned, I can apply to designing wind turbine blades.”
Today, Torp helps the next generation of college students prepare for jobs in renewable energy by serving as an industry mentor to the Hopkins Student Wind Energy Team, which has maintained a winning record since taking second place in 2021. The school’s team won the Project Development Contest in 2022 and Turbine Design Contest in 2023. The 2023–2024 school year marks the team’s fourth consecutive year participating in the CWC.
“It has been a really fulfilling experience for a few reasons,” Torp said. “One, it has been amazing to see the team grow and learn so much over just a few years, knowing that I helped build the framework for them as a founding member. And two, I got to finally meet in person with some of the industry mentors from when I participated in CWC as an undergrad. I met them at the CWC 2023 final event in Boulder last spring, and it was extremely cool to meet them as an industry peer.”
For college students who are interested in a career in renewable energy, or even those who are still weighing their options, Torp recommends multidisciplinary projects like the CWC.
“Multidisciplinary work exposes you to people outside of your major, whether that’s the sciences or the arts,” Torp said. “That’s how most jobs work in real life. You’re not just talking to people directly on your team; you’re talking to people in different parts of your company.”
She advised future students, “Get involved and use the opportunity to zero in on what you want to work on in the field of renewable energy and sustainability. Like I said, it’s such a broad field; there will be a niche for you somewhere.”