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#STEMStories: Emily, PhD Student in Aerospace Engineering, Canada

Name: Emily Gleeson
Role/Occupation: PhD Student in Aerospace Engineering
Country: Canada

As far as Gleeson can remember she has always wanted to understand how things worked and enjoyed helping her parents build things. A visit to the planetarium as a young girl gave her a push in the STEM direction, “it unleashed my curiosity for space exploration and is the same time I decided I wanted to be an astronaut,” she recalls.

At high school she gravitated towards the mathematics, science and computer courses and went on to complete an undergraduate degree in Applied Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering at Queen’s University.  For two summers, Gleeson interned at an engineering construction company and worked on building hydroelectric power plants in the mountains of western Canada after which she accepted a position as project manager for a Mechanical Contractor. In the interest of expanding her growth opportunities, she later joined Procter and Gamble in logistics and business operations planning. After four years and much thinking, she decided to follow her dreams of space exploration by returning to graduate studies, after being out of the academic environment for over 6 years.

She leapt into the Master of Applied Science program in Aerospace Engineering at Ryerson University and after achieving a high academic standing in her studies, she was encouraged by her supervisor and professors to join the doctoral program. Gleeson is currently part of the space systems research group and is working in a new area of study which involves developing advanced guidance, navigation and control systems for robotic spacecrafts for use in autonomous on-orbit assembly. The use of a robotic spacecraft to assemble a space station, possibly near the moon or Mars would allow for space habitats to be built on-orbit with no human intervention, making them more affordable and reducing risk of human life. “Every week is a rollercoaster of highs and lows, feeling brilliant and feeling like an imposter but I wouldn’t trade it for anything!” she exclaims as she discusses her doctoral studies.

Being able to contribute to the future of space exploration is what motivates Gleeson on a daily basis; “there are endless possibilities of what the future holds in astronautical sciences. It is such an exciting time to be in this field with the renewed interest in human space travel and the push to get to Mars,” she explains.

Her experience as a woman in STEM has not been without hurdles; “there have been many times where it has been questioned whether or not I was qualified enough, especially when working above men who were more than twice my age,” she explains. But as a very strong willed individual, she made a point of proving herself and her abilities in any job by doing her very best. Prejudice also affected her sense of dress, “I struggled a lot with what to wear on the job site so as not to draw the wrong type of attention towards me. I would honestly dress like a man, loose jeans, golf shirt and steel toed boots,” she recalls. However her attempts at embracing a more masculine style were futile, “Not only did I still get attention for being a woman, I lost my confidence as well because I wasn’t being true to myself. I now realize you need to be true to who you are and stick to your values regardless of the environment,” she explains. Gleeson feels that encouraging more women to join the STEM space will normalise their presence and hence lessen the current biases and prejudices towards women in STEM.

However in terms of career advancement, Gleeson has fortunately met with success, “I don’t think that being a woman ever held me back in that respect. I have always had managers who supported me and saw the potential I had to offer, regardless of gender.”

Her advice to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field is to just go for it, “you are smart enough and strong enough to do anything you put your mind to, it may not always be easy, and you will experience failure but learn from it and you will be so proud of yourself in the end.” 

With regards to her opinion of the advancement of STEM in Africa as someone looking in from the outside, Gleeson believes that Africa can provide invaluable contributions to the growth of STEM fields globally through the “unique problems and perspectives used to solve them [challenges or difficulties] that differ from those [methods or solutions] in North America or Europe… Where there is a gap there is opportunity for growth and I think the entire world will benefit from growth and progress of STEM in Africa.” 

Gleeson experienced one of her major career defining moments when she was still part of the corporate world, “my eureka moment actually happened when I was on vacation, I was reading The Martian by Andy Weir on the beach and realized I would rather be stranded on Mars than accept a promotion at my current job – turns out that is not how everyone feels... Haha!” she exclaims as she remembers having to make the tough decision of becoming a student again.

She is a big promoter of work-life balance, “I believe you do your best and most efficient work when you are happy and fulfilled in all aspects of your life so you can’t neglect either side of the equation.” To achieve this balance, she also applies the 80/20 rule, “If you can manage a healthy work-life balance 80% of the time, the remaining 20% of your time can be flexible to complete a deadline for work or take an extra day off if you feel you need it.”

Read more about this space enamoured Geeky Girl, Emily Gleeson in an inspiring interview which will take you on an adventure to various planets of knowledge as she shares her journey with us. 

1. Describe what your work entails.

I entered the 3rd year of my PhD in Aerospace Engineering last fall. I am part of the space systems research group at Ryerson University and I am working towards developing advanced guidance, navigation and control systems for robotic spacecraft for use in autonomous on-orbit assembly. This is a new area of study and is necessary as we look towards building a space station near the moon or Mars. The use of robotic spacecraft to assemble such a station would allow for space habitats to be built on-orbit with no human intervention, making them more affordable and greatly reducing risk of human life. 

Additionally, I am involved in the attitude determination and control system team for two small satellites, one of which will be launching from the International Space Station soon. 

2. Describe your engineering journey.

My engineering journey has been an interesting one. Since I was very young, I loved to understand how things worked and always wanted to help build things with my parents. When I was ten I visited a planetarium and it unleashed my curiosity for space exploration and is the same time I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. Throughout high school I gravitated towards the mathematics, science and computer courses which led me to apply to engineering in University. I didn’t entirely understand what engineering was at that point, but I was told if I liked math and science it would be a good fit. 

I did my undergraduate degree in Applied Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering at Queen’s University. During my undergrad I learned how to manage failure for the first time in my life and how to use it to improve myself and move forward. I interned at an engineering construction company working on building hydroelectric power plants in the mountains of western Canada for two summers which led me to accepting a position as a project manager for a Mechanical Contractor after graduation. After a few years, I was interested in expanding my growth opportunities which is when I joined Procter and Gamble in logistics and business operations planning where I stayed for 4 years before deciding to take the leap and follow my dreams of space exploration by returning to graduate studies. 

Initially, I started in the Master of Applied Science program in Aerospace Engineering at Ryerson in 2016, which was terrifying after being out of the academic environment for over 6 years. However, with a lot of hard work and determination, I achieved a high level of academic standing and was encouraged by my supervisor and my Advanced Controls professor to consider transferring into the doctoral program. My transfer was accepted starting in the fall of 2017 and I have been working towards my PhD ever since. Every week is a rollercoaster of highs and lows, feeling brilliant and feeling like an imposter but I wouldn’t trade it for anything! 

3. What excites you about your job? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?

The thought of being able to contribute to the future of space exploration is what keeps me dreaming every night and what gets me out of bed every morning. I learn something new every day in this field and there are endless possibilities of what the future holds in astronautical sciences. It is such an exciting time to be in this field with the renewed interest in human space travel and the push to get to Mars. I love what I do and am so proud to be a part of it. 

4. How would you describe your experience as a woman in the STEM space?

I have grown a lot as a woman in STEM since I first stepped into the workforce in 2010. There have been many times where it has been questioned whether or not I was qualified enough, especially when working above men who were more than twice my age. I have always been a very strong willed individual and I make a point to prove myself and my abilities in any job by doing my best work. Prejudice as a female in this industry doesn’t only come in the form of proving your capabilities. When I first started working I struggled a lot with what to wear on the job site so as not to draw the wrong type of attention towards me. I would honestly dress like a man, loose jeans, golf shirt and steel toed boots. Did it work? No. Not only did I still get attention for being a woman, I lost my confidence as well because I wasn’t being true to myself. I now realize you need to be true to who you are and stick to your values regardless of the environment. This is another reason why we need more women in STEM, we need to normalize having women present in all workplaces to remove this bias. 

In terms of career advancement, luckily, I don’t think that being a woman ever held me back in that respect. I have always had managers who supported me and saw the potential I had to offer, regardless of gender. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is always the case but if you can, find a company that values equal and equitable opportunities for everyone. 

5. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field?

If there is something in engineering or STEM fields that fuel your curiosity and passion, then GO FOR IT! You are smart enough and strong enough to do anything you put your mind to, it may not always be easy, and you will experience failure but learn from it and you will be so proud of yourself in the end. If there is a dream job you would love but think “how could I possibly get there?” just take it one step at a time, understand what qualifications you need and start there. You may find that along the way, your passion lies elsewhere or it will fuel your determination even more. 

6. As a STEM woman, how do you foresee the growth and progress of STEM on the continent? Is Africa a “land of opportunity”?

I am not a STEM woman in Africa, nor am I fully educated on the current STEM economy in Africa but I did not want to leave this question blank. Looking at it purely from a perspective of why it is so important to even have more women in STEM in that it will almost double the contributions and provide differing opinions and approaches to solving problems. There is so much potential in Africa to provide invaluable contributions to the advancement in many STEM fields with unique problems and perspectives used to solve them that differ from those in North America or Europe for example. Where there is a gap there is opportunity for growth and I think the entire world will benefit from growth and progress of STEM in Africa. Another reason why it is so important to have equitable access to opportunities and education for everyone. 

7. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career?

There have definitely been some defining moments throughout my career that has led me to where I am today. When you are in your early twenties and excited to finally be done school and in the workforce, making money it is very easy to get side-tracked from your passions and what a fulfilling career really means. It took me some time to really understand that money isn’t everything and that if you have a dream job and don’t do anything about it you will always feel like something is missing. My eureka moment actually happened when I was on vacation, I was reading The Martian by Andy Weir on the beach and realized I would rather be stranded on Mars than accept a promotion at my current job – turns out that is not how everyone feels... Haha! Leaving a great job with a multinational company to become a graduate student was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made but I am so proud of where I am today and am excited to see what the future has in store for me in this exciting field. 

8. How do you maintain a work-life balance?

I feel like I should be a spokesperson for work-life balance. It is probably the most important criteria for me when looking at jobs. I believe you do your best and most efficient work when you are happy and fulfilled in all aspects of your life so you can’t neglect either side of the equation. I make sure to make plans and commitments external to my work to keep me accountable for enjoying life outside of my studies. That being said, you can’t plan out your entire life so this is where the 80/20 rule is helpful. If you can manage a healthy work-life balance 80% of the time, the remaining 20% of your time can be flexible to complete a deadline for work or take an extra day off if you feel you need it. The important thing is to understand what makes you happy and stick to your values and principles. I am very clear at work that I value my life outside of my career. As long as you are doing your work to the best of your abilities, you can end your day feeling satisfied with your accomplishments. 

9. Who is your role model? Who inspires you?

I can’t say that I have one role model in particular so I will give you a few examples of who and what inspire me.

The first one will have to be Elon Musk. Yes he is very successful and smart and seems to have his hands in every new technology lately but what inspires me so much about Elon Musk is his unequivocal determination for pushing past the impossible. There is nothing that bothers me more than when someone say’s “that can’t be done, it’s not possible”. I like to think that there is always a solution, it just may not be an obvious one. Elon Musk has repeatedly proven this with his reusable rockets and the impressive performance of the Tesla vehicles. 

The second one is women past, present and future, my list grows daily. There is so much strength and courage being displayed by women everywhere and I find it so inspiring. When I started my blog and started working on the Lady Boss section by asking former classmates for their stories I was overwhelmed by the reaction, respect and support everyone showed towards them. People are now reaching out to me to nominate their friends or colleagues who they think are great role models and it just goes to show that there are SO many amazing and talented women out there. Sometimes it’s hard to see other women in your field and not compare your accomplishments to theirs and rank yourself but I’ve been really trying to focus my attention on grouping all of the awesome women together. We really need to get out of the mindset of being the best woman in the room and help lift each other up to illustrate and normalize how many incredible women are all around us. 

10. Where can more information or insight into your work be found?

I have a blog, Space Broaddity, (www.spacebroaddity.com) which is more of a creative outlet of mine. I intend to showcase more of my research in the future but currently I am using it as a tool to promote engineering and STEM careers and some awesome ladies who are leading by example. 

Twitter:  @EmGleeson

Emily Gleeson  interviewed by Dhruti Dheda

Dhruti Dheda is a Chemical Engineer with a strong interest in media and communication. She is the editor of the Engineers without Borders South Africa Newsletter and the Community Manager – South Africa and Regional Outreach for Geeky Girl Reality. If you wish to collaborate or network, contact her at dhruti@geekyreality.com or find her on twitter @dhrutidd