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The iconic Humvee, or the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) made famous by the American military during the Gulf War in the 1990s that, in turn, spun off a series of Hummer light utility truck models for civilian use, will soon be “reborn” into an electric monster of a truck.

No, we’re not talking about Frankenstein-on-wheels here, but a total re-engineering of a classic gas-guzzling mammoth into an all-electric four-wheel-drive super truck. Yes, the power and intimidating looks of the fossil fuel-powered Hummer are still there, but the erstwhile powerplant, notorious for its disdain of all things sustainable and environment-friendly, has been discarded. In its place are three zero-emissions electric motors working together to generate up to 1,000 horsepower, and enough torque to launch a multi-ton truck from 0 to 100 kph in three neck-snapping seconds. Oh, and did we already mention that this one would be able to “crab walk”, meaning it can do a sidestep or diagonal manoeuvre?

Right now, though, all of these figures and capabilities are on paper, and its maker General Motors announced its production plans just two weeks ago. When the actual vehicle rolls out (or should we say “crawl out”?) of the assembly lines in 2021, it will be branded as the 2022 GMC Hummer EV.

For now, a team of engineers and designers are hard at work at GM headquarters in Detroit, Michigan, putting together what it calls the world’s first EV super truck.

Probably what’s equally fascinating about the Hummer EV is that a Filipina engineer is a member of the team.

Djoana Geopano Wheeler is a 41-year-old Senior Design Release Engineer for GM who has been assigned to develop and install the high- and low-voltage wire harnesses of the Hummer EV.

Previously, Wheeler was among the wiring design team for the Chevrolet Volt Gen 1 and Gen 2, Cadillac ELR, Cadillac XTS, and Cadillac CT6. She has been with GM for almost six years, having been also the lead engineer in the company’s quality, reliability, and durability departments, but her career in automotive engineering spans two decades, as she has had the opportunity to work for a supplier dealing with other Japanese original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

In an exclusive interview with Inquirer Motoring, Wheeler recounted how she went from being an inquisitive little girl in her hometown in Negros Oriental to stepping foot in the United States and landing an engineering job in a male-dominated industry.

Fixing lightbulbs

Wheeler was born and raised in a middle-class family in the town of San Jose in Negros Oriental. Her mom, a native of San Jose, was a midwife, and her dad, who hails from Guihulngan City, was a government employee. “I’m the eldest of four kids, and the only daughter. My parents are still in the Philippines enjoying their time with their grandkids,” Wheeler said.

“I had always been fascinated with engineering since I was little. Ever since I was a kid, I had always been envisioned myself to become one. I remembered an instance when my grandma broke a Christmas lightbulb, but I fixed it and that was my proud moment.”

Wheeler continued switching on more lightbulbs in her mind as she completed high school at St. Paul University in Dumaguete, and when she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering at Silliman University in 2000.

Even during her days in the academe, Wheeler was used to a male-dominated atmosphere. “Math-intensive fields have a gender disparity and dominion—it’s all about men; however, my academic life was normal. There were about four of us women in a class of 50 electrical engineering students. The BSEE and BSME courses were the least favorite engineering courses for women. Lately, however, there has been a lot of interest from women in these engineering fields, and that’s because most companies are promoting diversity and equality,” observed Wheeler.

“I was focused on my studies and bent towards getting a job right away after graduation. Fortunately, a month before I finished my degree, Lear Corp, an automotive engineering company in Cebu, offered me a position which paved the way for my career here in the United States,” she shared.

Early in her career, Wheeler was assigned to Japan, where she worked for five years. Then, in 2008, she migrated to the United States to join her husband Mark Steven, a military veteran who served in the US Air Force and Marines.

She sent Inquirer Motoring a copy of the US-based Woman Engineer Magazine where she was once featured. There, she discussed diversity, especially for women in the field of engineering.

“I have never been in a situation where my gender was a disadvantage. I’m happy to work for a company where there is diversity, equality and inclusion in all aspects. Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, is a woman,” she pointed out.

Wheeler predicts that she won’t be the last Filipino woman engineer to make a mark in the United States. “My career experience in the Philippines is what paved my profession here. We are lucky that there are automotive companies expanding their businesses globally, which are helping young Filipinos achieve their dreams.

Her long-term plans do include returning to her motherland. “The Philippines will always be home to most of us, and if I can share my expertise to the young generation, that would be great,” she said.

Asked what lightbulb idea she could share with aspiring women and Filipinos in the automotive world to inspire them to excel in their chosen fields, she said: “In the engineering world, there is no gender barrier—women can do what men can. Believe in yourself and be motivated to always put your best foot forward.”

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