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Women In Science

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Natalie Panek, Mission Systems Engineer & Women in STEM Advocate

27 May, 2019

Natalie Panek [Image credit: Natalia Dolan]

Natalie Panek [Image credit: Natalia Dolan]

Natalie Panek is truly an inspiration. Along with being a trailblazing space engineer, Natalie is dedicated to inspire, empower and uplift young women in science & engineering. Natalie talked to Rocket Women about growing up in an environment that cultivated possibility, the importance of mentors to break down barriers, working on a Martian rover and her new documentary ‘Space To Explore‘!

What was the path to get to where you are now in the space industry and what drives your passion for space?

My career in aerospace engineering launched from a dream to become an astronaut. I loved the idea of maybe one day travelling to space, exploring, and doing science alongside a really fantastic team. Watching a lot of science fiction –Star Trek, Star Wars, and Stargate with my mom when I was a kid – fueled this passion. I think my interest in science and engineering also sparked from a love for the outdoors.

Time outdoors fostered a curiosity and wonder for the world that has never gone away, which established a connection between science, tech, and engineering and how they can be used to positively shape the world.

I grew up in Alberta and spent a large portion of my childhood camping with my family. This time outdoors fostered a curiosity and wonder for the world that has never gone away, which established a connection between science, tech, and engineering and how they can be used to positively shape the world. And while I knew I wanted to be an astronaut, the path to becoming one was never all that clear. From some basic research, I knew that many astronauts are engineers. Despite not knowing much about engineering when I was younger, a physics teacher in high school encouraged me to pursue it.

The problem-solving aspect of engineering turned out to be a great fit and held my interest through both undergraduate and graduate studies. This path ultimately led me to the field of space robotics, in which I have been working for nearly the last decade. I actually had no experience with robotics before my job. There was a steep learning curve but with many great learning experiences from talented colleagues.

While I am not an astronaut today, I have worked on a ton of interesting projects as an aerospace engineer. The key takeaway here is that there are so many different opportunities to work in the aerospace industry that do not include becoming an astronaut (even though that would be really cool)!

Natalie Panek

Natalie Panek

Congratulations on your new documentary Space To Explore. Can you tell me more about the documentary and what inspired it?

The documentary focuses on my story and my dream of one day travelling to space. And in telling this story, a reminder that it is OK to set big goals and have big dreams, yet not achieve them. The power of those big dreams lies in everything that is learned along the way, with opportunities to create positive change.

The documentary was borne out of an interview I did for Air Canada’s En Route magazine. The producer read my interview while flying home from vacation and she found the feature really inspiring. It took a few years for all of the pieces to fit together after she initially reached out, and then the film premiered as a finalist last year in the Banff Mountain Film Festival!

Who were your role models when you were growing up and how important are role models to young girls?

Most of my role models growing up were fictional characters. I thought She-Ra was the coolest person ever – she was powerful and compassionate. I wanted to be just like Samantha Carter on Stargate SG-1, or even versions of Luke Skywalker and Wesley Crusher. I wish I could have emailed astronauts or aerospace engineers and asked all my questions when I was younger. A few years ago, I realized I am in a great position to share my experiences. I created an online platform and spaces where young people could connect with me and ask any questions they might have about space, engineering, robotics, or anything related to Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math (STEM).

I wanted to be just like Samantha Carter on Stargate SG-1, or even versions of Luke Skywalker and Wesley Crusher. I wish I could have emailed astronauts or aerospace engineers and asked all my questions when I was younger.

Natalie Panek participating in the International Space University's Space Studies Program (SSP09) course at NASA Ames Research Centre with fellow Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens! [Photo credit: Eric Dahlstrom]

Natalie Panek participating in the International Space University’s Space Studies Program (SSP09) course at NASA Ames Research Centre with fellow featured Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens! [Photo credit: Eric Dahlstrom]

Not knowing what to pursue in university or not having anyone to speak with can be overwhelming. Role models and mentors breaks down barriers by connecting young people with those working in STEM fields. And role models open up so many career opportunities that young people might just not be aware of.

Role models and mentors breaks down barriers by connecting young people with those working in STEM fields. And role models open up so many career opportunities that young people might just not be aware of.

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?

Honestly, I am not sure that my family knew how to support my dream of becoming an astronaut or a career in engineering. It was just so far from anything they had experience with. I would tell them my goals – for example, that I was going to learn how to fly a plane, drive a solar powered car across North America, or study aerospace engineering – and they never second guessed those conversations. It was almost like not saying anything made everything – even the biggest goals – seem both normal and achievable.

I grew up in an environment that cultivated possibility. And when failures happened or obstacles arose (which they often did), my parents encouraged moving on rather than dwelling, and were always available to help figure out what comes next.

I grew up in an environment that cultivated possibility. And when failures happened or obstacles arose (which they often did), my parents encouraged moving on rather than dwelling, and were always available to help figure out what comes next. While support and encouragement come in many forms, my family gave (gives) me the space and freedom to do what I need to do. This is so subtle, but impactful.

What are your favourite things about your workday?

I really love that I contribute to challenging engineering projects in a collaborative environment. I work with amazing teams on a daily basis to help design and build hardware that is going to explore space or go to another planet. But things do not always go according to plan when working on space projects. Every day presents something new and requires working with dynamic and creative co-workers to solve the challenges that pop up.

I really love that I contribute to challenging engineering projects in a collaborative environment. I work with amazing teams on a daily basis to help design and build hardware that is going to explore space or go to another planet.

I also really love testing and the opportunity to do hands-on work; to see our designs come to life in our clean rooms. Our engineering and robotic products need to operate in pretty extreme environments (imagine dust storms on Mars, driving through deep soil, climbing over rocks, and exposure to really cold or hot temperatures!). Designing and testing for these environments requires creativity and visualizing different ways of approaching and solving problems. It is very validating and what makes our work at MDA really exciting.

Our engineering and robotic products need to operate in pretty extreme environments (imagine dust storms on Mars, driving through deep soil, climbing over rocks, and exposure to really cold or hot temperatures!). Designing and testing for these environments requires creativity and visualizing different ways of approaching and solving problems.

Natalie Panek with Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Dr. Dave Williams [Photo Credit M. Northcott]

Natalie Panek with Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Dr. Dave Williams [Photo Credit M. Northcott]

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

I have worked on so many fascinating projects at MDA over the last decade. These projects range from studying how hazardous lunar dust affects the mechanical and electronic hardware that might be used in a lunar rover or lunar habitat, using robotic arms to repair or de-orbit broken-down satellites instead of letting them become space junk, and building robotic space tools.

I am actually working on a rover that is going to explore another planet and that is just so cool!

But the most rewarding moment of my career so far has been working on a Mars rover for the last 4.5 years. We are building the chassis and locomotion system for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2020 rover. The chassis and locomotion system (or the mobility system) is the frame of the rover: its legs, its wheels, as well as its motors and sensors. All of this hardware enables the rover to deploy once on Mars, as well as drive around and steer to get to its locations for science operations. I am actually working on a rover that is going to explore another planet and that is just so cool!

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

Advice I would pass along is not to be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone. I have been in a lot of scenarios where I was really nervous to take that first step, whether it was learning how to fly a plane or helping build a solar powered car, or even starting a job in robotics. I think this was because I did not want to be the person in the room who did not know anything.

Once you are in that room, you can help bring in more people whom look like you – others whom might also have been afraid to take that first step but would really, really be interested in science, engineering, technology, even robotics.

I was afraid that I did not have the skills to contribute. But if you can get over that initial fear and vulnerability, there is usually a great team surrounding you to help overcome those challenges and to help you build skills. And once you are in that room, you can help bring in more people whom look like you – others whom might also have been afraid to take that first step but would really, really be interested in science, engineering, technology, even robotics.

With respect to doing things differently, I do not think I would. I think about this question from time to time. For example, what if I had accepted my offer of admission to Stanford University to complete my masters in Aerospace Engineering, versus going to the University of Toronto. I think it is easy to worry about making a ‘wrong’ choice.

What really matters is whether opportunities to learn are always present and that you are surrounded by people whom lift you up. And if an opportunity or experience just does not feel right, there is no shame in making a change.

But I like the idea of having different options to consider, knowing that each option will take me down a different path, with different experiences, and meeting different people along the way. What really matters is whether opportunities to learn are always present and that you are surrounded by people whom lift you up. And if an opportunity or experience just does not feel right, there is no shame in making a change.

Media, Scholarships, Shop

Rocket Women Launches Apparel To Support Scholarship

8 December, 2018

For post Rocket women final apparel print smaller 181202-21 jpg

We’re thrilled to announce that Rocket Women have launched a line of apparel designs (for babies, kids and adults) featuring our brand new logo by the amazing Marka Design! Part of the proceeds from the apparel will go towards a scholarship for young women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). Our t-shirts, sweatshirts, stickers, tote bags and more make fantastic holiday gifts, whilst helping to support the next generation.

If you love these designs as much as we do, you can purchase them at Red Bubble here.

[Update: We’re thrilled to announce that proceeds from Rocket Women apparel will support a scholarship to be provided to a woman of any nationality attending the International Space University‘s Space Studies Program (SSP)!)

Here are some of our designs!

Rocket Woman Hoodie [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Rocket Woman Hoodie [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Rocket Women Patch Sweatshirt [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Rocket Women Patch Sweatshirt [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman Children's T-Shirt - Pink [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman Children’s T-Shirt – Pink [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman Onesie [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman Onesie [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Rocket Women T-shirt [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Rocket Women T-shirt [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman Kids T-Shirt [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Celebrate, Inspiration, Inspirational women

UN International Day of Women & Girls In Science 2018: Inspiring The Next Generation

11 February, 2018

The 11th of February marks the United Nations International Day of Women In Science, a day celebrating the achievements of trailblazing women in science, whilst aiming to inspire the next generation of physicists, chemists, engineers and biologists.

I absolutely love this graphic by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to celebrate, showcasing the variety of careers available in the space industry!

If you’re interested in a career in space be inspired by the stories of trailblazing Rocket Women featured today, from a Flight Controller in Mission Control to an Engineer designing the next generation of satellites, to a Geologist training astronauts for missions to the surface of the Moon and Mars, a Biologist designing novel human life support systems and an Astrophysicist unlocking the mysteries of the Universe.

You don’t have to be the best in maths and science – you don’t have to be number 1 or number 2. You just have to want to help humankind. That should be the passion. You don’t have to be the best –just be proficient. We need to change the conversation to know that you’re all in.

As former NASA Deputy Administrator Dr. Dava Newman said, “You don’t have to be the best in maths and science – you don’t have to be number 1 or number 2. You just have to want to help humankind. That should be the passion. You don’t have to be the best –just be proficient. We need to change the conversation to know that you’re all in.”

Remember, there are lots of different pathways to work in the space industry, even if you not looking to become an engineer, scientist or astronaut. During a Rocket Women interview with Emma Lehnhardt from NASA, Emma rightly mentioned that although we need more female STEM graduates, “we also need policy wonks, like me, accountants, lawyers, artists, English majors, you name it.” In her interview with Rocket Women, Emma revealed a woman who really had an impact on her when she was an intern at NASA, named Lynn Cline. She had only ever had one meeting with her, but was absolutely struck that a French literature scholar became the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations.

To work in the space industry the most important thing that you can do is to study something that you love and are passion about. You have to enjoy what you study and the work that you’re doing. Pay attention to what your passion is for and follow that passion to find your ideal career in space.

Education, Inspiration

Super Cool Scientists – A Colouring Book Celebrating Women In Science

8 October, 2017

Super Cool Scientists Illustration of NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir, by Illustrator Yvonne Page [Super Cool Scientists]

Super Cool Scientists’ Illustration of NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir, by Illustrator Yvonne Page [Super Cool Scientists]

If you’re looking for a birthday present or stocking filler this Christmas, look no further than the brilliant Super Cool Scientists by Sara MacSorley.

Sara has created a masterpiece of stunning illustrations celebrating 22 women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), perfect for your niece, nephew or yourself to colour in! Super Cool Scientists was created to inspire the next generation of science researchers, educators and communicators by showcasing the stories of female engineers, marine biologists, astronauts, artists, entrepreneurs and computer animators.

The book highlights that these incredible women, “travel the world, explore unknown environments and even let fossils take them back in time.” They represent a variety of ages, races, experiences, origins, abilities and orientations; proof that science is for everybody.

Rocket Women talked to Sara MacSorley about how she was inspired to develop Super Cool Scientists!

Rocket Women: What sparked the idea to create Super Cool Scientists, the colouring and story book celebrating women in STEM?

Sara MacSorley: I have a science background – marine biology – and learned in college that I was more interested in the outreach and communication side of science than the research side. Over time, my career path took me further away from science and I missed it. I was looking for a project outside of my day job that brought more science into my life.

I was simultaneously learning how to manage my own issues with anxiety and found coloring was something that helped me relax.

I was simultaneously learning how to manage my own issues with anxiety and found coloring was something that helped me relax. Searching for books that I would like, I found that nothing like this that celebrated current women in science existed.

The lightbulb went on that creating such a book would be the perfect project to bring some science back to my life and also promote the inclusion of diversity in STEM careers.

RW: Name a woman (or women), past or present, whom you admire or look up to?

SM: There are many! Two in particular were my mentors in college that helped me figure out how to continue with a science career when I realized I didn’t want to do research. Dr. Jacqueline Webb was my marine biology advisor at the University of Rhode Island. She guided me to finding work study jobs that focused more on science outreach and communication.

Dr. Sunshine Menezes was one of my bosses at those early work study jobs. She leads the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting and that is where I learned about my interest in science communication and storytelling.

Whenever I’m reassessing my career (to this day), both of these amazing women scientists are there to listen, help make connections if they can, and share their experiences. I am so grateful for their mentorship, and now, friendship.

RW: What is your goal with the second book, which features awesome scientists including astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz?

SM: My goal with the book is to expose young people lots of types of science, technology, engineering, and maths careers. I freaked out in college after I realized I didn’t want to do research because no one had ever told me what else you could do with a science degree.

I want every reader who looks at the book to find something to relate to in the stories and images. The hope there is that by learning more about people who have similar experiences or looks, that young people can also envision themselves in these types of careers.

The original book features the stories of 22 diverse women in a range of careers from astronaut to mechanic to (of course) marine biologist. I want every reader who looks at the book to find something to relate to in the stories and images. The hope there is that by learning more about people who have similar experiences or looks, that young people can also envision themselves in these types of careers.

The second book will feature another 20+ women. This time around, I’d like to feature even more types of careers such as astronomer, software engineer, and climate scientist.

Super Cool Scientists

Super Cool Scientists

Rocket Women: What were your biggest challenges in the development of Super Cool Scientists?

SM: This was totally a new experience for me and all of that was scary. I had never written a book, never launched a crowdfunding campaign, never started a business around a product. I was researching, asking a lot of questions, and learning as I went all while working a separate full time job.

I’d say a combination of time management and also the self-confidence to remind myself that I could be successful were two big challenges. Surrounding myself with cheerleaders (not just of the project, but also of me) was helpful in the confidence piece. My family and friends were so supportive (still are!) and I love them all for that so much.

Now, I can say that I am a small business owner and an author who has run a successful, international crowdfunding campaign.

Rocket Women: Where can readers learn more about Super Cool Scientists and your goals?

SM: Readers can visit www.supercoolscientists.com or my website www.saramacsorley.com to learn more. You can also find us on social media: Twitter @SuperCoolSci and Facebook Super Cool Scientists.

Readers can also share their coloring pages on social media using #supercoolscientists. Seeing the pictures from our readers is my favorite part of the project.

Volume 1 of Super Cool Scientists is available now!

Media

Rocket Women Featured At The Bluedot Festival, Jodrell Bank, UK

16 July, 2017
Vinita Marwaha Madill representing Rocket Women at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank in the UK!

Vinita Marwaha Madill representing Rocket Women at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank in the UK!

I’m excited to share that Rocket Women featured at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank in the UK last weekend! The festival is an amazing culmination of science, technology and music, with headliners including Orbital, Alt-J and the Pixies, alongside well-known science communicators including Helen Keen, Tim O’Brien, Chris Lintott, Angela Saini and Helen Czerski. The aim of the Bluedot Festival is to explore the ‘frontiers of human advancement, celebrate science and the exploration of the universe’, alongside exploring the ‘intersections of science, culture, art and technology’!

I had a fantastic day at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank talking about How To Be A Rocket Woman & sharing the stories of Rocket Women featured here, in addition to taking part in a Space Quiz later in the day with comedians Helen Keen & Steve Cross! I’m extremely grateful to everybody that came to listen to my talk. I’m excited to encourage the next generation to follow their dreams in STEM through Rocket Women & hopefully increase the number of young women especially, that choose a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) & space.

Why is this important? Well, in the UK, one in five schoolchildren would need to become engineers to fill the upcoming gap in engineering. This is coupled with the fact that female engineers in the UK only make up 9% of all engineering professionals! We need to empower young women to be Rocket Women & reverse this trend. Moreover, humanity is only going to reach 50% of its potential if we only have 50% of the workforce working on the world’s hardest engineering problems. Imagine what the world would look like if it reached 100% of its technological potential?

Vinita Marwaha Madill presenting 'How To Be A Rocket Woman' at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank, UK

Vinita Marwaha Madill presenting ‘How To Be A Rocket Woman’ at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank, UK

Thank you MCR Live for the interview!

Thank you MCR Live for the interview!

It was amazing to meet 8-year-old Chloe after my talk and hear about her space goals! She's a dedicated and inspiring young lady! (Image credit: Claire Mainstone)

It was amazing to meet 8-year-old Chloe after my talk and hear about her space goals! She’s a dedicated and inspiring young lady! (Image credit: Claire Mainstone)