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#STEMStories: Natalie, Rocket Scientist, Advocate for Women in Tech, Canada

1) Please introduce yourself and tell us about what you do.

My name is Natalie Panek and I build space robots. My background is in mechanical and aerospace engineering, which I studied in school to work towards my long-term dream of becoming an astronaut. My work involves collaborating with teams of engineers to build robotic arms (think of the Canadarms as an example), robotics tools, or even a Mars rover.

2) How did you arrive at this career? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

The idea of one day travelling to space as an astronaut grew out of a love for science fiction and watching programs like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Stargate with my mom when I was a kid. I wanted to be the captain of my own starship and explore new worlds with an amazing and dynamic team. I wanted to leave the comforts of home and explore new places that no one had seen before!

3) What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning?

I love that every day brings something new and interesting. Because space projects are challenging, our work does not always go according to plan. This means brainstorming with a team and working through various solutions to determine the best way forward, and often on a very short timeline.

4) What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a Story?

My escape from stress and how hectic everyday life can be, is physical activity and spending as much time as possible outdoors. Outdoors I feel like myself, where I find my strength, my power, and resilience. Open spaces put my mind in a space where I can set goals to achieve my dreams.

5) Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

I have many role models, but a very impactful individual was my high school physics teacher. She taught me to see the value of a career and life built around science and engineering. She also encouraged me to push my limits and to never settle for ‘just good enough’. Role models can be people we are able to interact with on a daily basis as well as people whom may inspire as from afar, such as in the media for example.

6) What is your experience of being a woman in the technology industry?

My experience working in the technology has been very positive. I have had the opportunity to work on a number of really interesting projects like helping to build a solar powered car, learning how to fly, building space robots to repair satellites on-orbit, and now a Mars rover program (the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover program). While there have been challenges, and times where I lacked confidence to believe I could contribute, I constantly remind myself that my primary goal is to learn and to ensure that I learn something new at the end of each day.

7) What advice would you give to young women entering the STEM field?

Do not be afraid to work outside of your comfort zone and try new things. Also, always be willing to persevere when things go wrong. We overcome many obstacles and challenges working on STEM projects and it is so important to keep pushing through and collaborating with your team members to come up with creative solutions when things do not go according to plan (and usually things will not go according to plan!).

8) How do you measure your success?

What I have learned about success in recent years is that it is not the ‘climb the ladder’ vertical movement I always thought it was. My success has been lateral, extending into different disciplines with opportunities to give back to others. I think it is also important to recognize that success does not look the same for everyone and we should always be willing to help support someone else’s definition of success as they strive to reach their goals.