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Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science with  Natalie Panek

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By Serena Harding

Let’s face it. Women in science are freaking AMAZING. However, there are so few of them compared to their male counterparts. The UN General Assembly declared February 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science to promote the importance of achieving gender equality and the need for more women and girl empowerment. To mark this day, Daily Planet is going to be celebrating some pretty amazing women in STEM.

Natalie Panek is one of those amazing women and is working with Mission Systems at MDA’s Robotics and Automation division with Canadian space robotics and other space exploration programs. Natalie has degrees in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and worked on several high-profile space projects. She literally is a rocket scientist and we got a chance to chat with her!

Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science with  Natalie Panek

How did your journey in science begin? Where did it all start?

For me it started in Alberta growing up in the Rockies. I spent a lot of time outside with my family and kind of had this curiosity for exploration and especially when we were out at night by the campfire looking up at the stars and wondering what’s out in space. Also, I watched a lot of sci-fi with my mom growing up and I was intrigued by the idea of participating on a team on a starship exploring the far reaches of the galaxy and that kind of fostered my love of space and wanting to pursue a career in Aerospace Engineering.

What was your biggest challenge?

I think my biggest challenge has been being willing to pursue experiences that are outside of my comfort zone and accepting or believing that I have skills and ideas to contribute to a team even if I’m not the expert in that environment and remembering my ideas and what I bring to the table are valuable to really help on innovative projects. It’s a constant reminder to myself that I am good enough to be in STEM, that I am capable and have a lot to offer.

What are you working on currently?

I am working on the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover program. The European Space Agency is planning to launch their first Mars rover in 2020 and my company, MDA which is a Canadian company, a robotics and space division in Brampton and its responsible for the chassis and locomotion system for that rover and that basically means the frame of the rover with its legs and the wheels and the motors, basically everything the rover needs to be able to drive on the surface of Mars to do its science.

What is your proudest achievement so far?

I’ve learned that success isn’t the ladder that I thought it was. I always thought growing up you had to be moving up and what I think is so cool is that my success has been more lateral and I have had the opportunity to participate in so many cool projects whether learning how to fly or building a solar powered car or now building space robots and getting to do outreach and inspiring young women and that lateral success has been more meaningful to me moving up any rung, so I am proud of all my achievements.

Who is a role model of yours in your field?

Women like Maryse Carmichael who was a pilot for the Snowbirds, which is a Canadian Aerobatics flight group, I had the opportunity to be mentored by her a few years ago. My colleagues inspire me, I think the key is tapping into all the people you interact with on a regular basis whether it’s an in-depth relationship or someone passing by I think there is always something we can learn from someone else’s perspective.

What do you think is the biggest challenge women in STEM face?

I think there are a lot of different challenges and I think those challenges depend on where you are in your career but also what your background is. I’m speaking from the perspective of a white woman who probably has a lot more privilege than a lot of people and so the challenges that I face are certainly not the challenges that everyone else faces I mean it can be issues with the people you work with or not enough flexibility in your work environment not enough opportunity to be heard and give your opinion, not enough opportunities to work on fulfilling projects. So many different issues that women have to navigate often referred now as the glass obstacle course it’s not smashing the glass ceiling its navigating all these different systemic issues, so many different issues with a woman’s career in STEM, how we overcome those is not an easy answer.
 
What is your message for girls and the next generation of scientists?

My message would be to dream big, and to see yourself as an everyday explorer, to always be curious, to question without restraint and to always see the world with wonder and awe.
 
What’s something that most don’t know about you?
That’s a good question, I play ultimate Frisbee!

Why is this day important?

I think this day is important to not only inspire girls and women in science but also to encourage women working in science and tech and engineering to share their stories and put their selves out there and really talk about why we love what we do.
 
To learn more about what Natalie is up to, check out her website at thepanekroom.com or follow her on Twitter @nmpanek and Instagram @natalie_panek Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science with  Natalie Panek

*The words of this interview have been modified for editing purposes