Natalie Panek is an adventurer in every sense of the word. She’s a rocket scientist, a space roboticst, a pilot, an aspiring astronaut, and this year she was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30. Natalie spoke with us about her career, her dreams of space exploration, and how we can all encourage more women to step into the STEM sectors.
In 2007, Natalie graduated with a B.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Calgary and gained her M.Sc degree from the University of Toronto in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical/Space Engineering in 2009. Following this, Natalie worked for NASA, the International Space University, and now in her current role at MDA as a Mission Systems Engineer. Throughout her career, she notes that several mentors, both men and women, have helped to inspire her own career path and instill the value of curiosity within her. As a passionate supporter of women in STEM fields, I asked Natalie what ways she believed that organizations and individuals could encourage more women to step into STEM?
“Organizations must provide mentors, champions, and ensure that employees are contributing on fulfilling projects. Most importantly, supporting the successes of women in your organization. We need to focus on why women involved with technology love what we do [through sharing stories]. The more women hear about and see other women innovating, inventing, and building, the more they will believe they can do it too.”
Through TED talks, presentations, and publications, Natalie’s accomplishments have helped inspire women all over the country, allowing others the opportunity to “visualize what is possible for their daughters, sisters, or any other women in their lives.” Yet the accomplishment that she is most proud of was securing her first internship at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. She had applied for a scholarship to participate in a NASA internship for four consecutive years and was continually not selected for the program. After the fourth rejection she called the Chief of the Office of Higher Education at NASA directly, who offered her an internship position on the spot. “For every hour I spent on my internship, I spent ten times as long trying to get there and that made it so much more rewarding.”
Her own experience is a statement on finding success through setback. She recommends that young professionals look at challenges and risk as “a means to life-long learning and as valuable opportunities to push your limits.” She believes that all women, but especially women in STEM, can learn a lot about themselves by participating in situations outside of their comfort zones.
With such an interesting background, I was curious to know what has been her favorite project that she’s worked on so far. “My favorite so far is the idea of satellite servicing, which uses robotic arms to repair and refuel satellites that have broken down on-orbit. Imagine an orbital tow truck! I call this sustainable exploration and I think it is so, so critical in the data-driven age that we live in.”
Since she was a child, the desire to explore has been a driving factor towards Natalie’s dreams of becoming an astronaut. “[She sees space exploration] as the epitome of exploration and what it means to dream”. To her, “traveling beyond the boundaries of Earth is a life-long goal and yet there is so much positive change to create here in the meantime.”
Even though her work largely involves the logistics of space exploration, Natalie also places high value on spending time here on Earth – more specifically, out in nature. While she advocates for more women in STEM, she also encourages more women to experience the outdoors and to experience new things.
Above all, Natalie encourages all women, both those in the STEM sectors and those who are not, to “dream big and dare to achieve the impossible.” Natalie Panek is proof that women can do anything, and an inspiration to STEMinists everywhere.