Women in STEM: Natalie Panek: “Hands on, experiential learning is incredibly valuable”

According to Statistics Canada, women account for only 39% of graduates from university STEM programs and only 23% of graduates from engineering programs.

Those numbers, however, are no indication of the career prospects for women in science and technology.

Meet Natalie Panek: rocket scientist.

For the past six years, she’s worked at the Brampton, Ont., offices of MDA Corp. as a systems engineer on space robotics projects and other space exploration programs. An accomplished explorer and advocate for women in STEM, she also has a goal beyond the lab: to travel to space herself.

What does a rocket scientist like yourself do on a daily basis?

I am working on a Mars rover program right now. We’re building the chassis and locomotion system for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover that will launch in 2018. I have been working on the test planning because before you can send hardware into space or another planet, you have to make sure it’s going to survive the launch, the transit (to Mars), and the surface operations. We do a lot of testing here on Earth to make sure the hardware will actually work on Mars.

What sort of skills go into working on such a project?

Definitely a lot of problem-solving and the ability to think creatively. Space projects are very dynamic so you have to be able to think on the fly and make decisions. An engineering degree is a good place to start.

You’ve also have an interest in getting rid of space junk.

When I first started at MDA six years ago, satellite servicing was the first project I worked on. We spent three years building terrestrial testbed robots that could prove the capabilities of “sending out an ‘orbital tow truck’ that can rendezvous and dock with a broken satellite and fix it.”

It’s super-cool that we have all these satellites around the Earth that we rely on, but we don’t think about what happens when they reach their end of life. This is a neat project working toward how we can be more sustainable in our exploration.

You’ve said you want to go to space. What inspired your ambition to be an astronaut?

I’m from Alberta so I grew up in the Rockies with a sense of the outdoors and exploration. Coupled with watching Star Trek and Stargate SG-1 and seeing scientists and engineers exploring other worlds, space travel just seemed so cool.

Where are you on the track to becoming one?

The Canadian space corps is small. For context, they had a call for astronauts in 1983, 1992 and 2009. In 2009, they selected two new astronauts and they probably won’t fly until 2019 and 2024. If I get there, it’s the icing on the cake, but if I don’t I’ll have all these rewarding projects I’ve worked on and with no regrets.

What can be done to encourage more girls and women to explore careers in aerospace?

We need to have more women who are in engineering and tech visible in the media — women that young girls can see on a regular basis. Opportunities to get hands-on experiential learning are also incredibly valuable, like joining a robotics club or heading to “maker spaces” in your communities. Challenging projects are easier to dive into when you have experience working on real-world projects.

Any practical advice for girls or women thinking about getting into aerospace?

Don’t be afraid to work outside of your comfort zone. It can be scary and intimidating — and that’s perfectly okay — but it provides good opportunities to learn and surround yourself with people who can teach you things you don’t know.


Follow along with our “Women in STEM” week here.

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