For women considering a career rooted in science and technology, the message is moving beyond the brief “you can do it” and “just give it a try.”
Natalie Panek, a rocket scientist and advocate for women in tech, noted she grew up with early, existing success stories in the likes of astronauts Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette. They were a touchstone as she pursued degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering and strove for top marks.
“The Canadian astronauts, they were, to me, proof of the possibilities in science,” she said, prior to making a presentation on “Revolutionizing Women in Technology” at the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries (NATI) Knowledge Summit at the Sheraton Hotel Wednesday.
“They don’t always have to be real people, either,” she said with a smile. “I grew up watching the Stargate (TV) series with my mom. And so, Samantha Carter (played by Amanda Tapping) was an astrophysicist on that show and it was a weekly reminder that women can be strong in science.”
Panek cemented her own long-term goal of becoming an astronaut while still in high school. Apart from required school work, she has since tackled all sorts of hands-on challenges that might have intimidated at first glance, including earning her private pilot’s licence.
At just 20 years of age, she was part of a team racing a solar-powered test vehicle, out of the University of Calgary, from Texas to Alberta.
She has also completed internships at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center and, working on a mission to Mars, at the Ames Research Center.
Nowadays, she works with MDA — MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. (In 1999, MDA took over the robotic operations of SPAR Aerospace, the company that designed and built the Canadarm.)
Hardly the only woman working at MDA today, Panek said if anything, the idea she is a rocket scientist in a minority, as a woman, has only ever come to her as a passing thought.
“For me, going through an engineering degree, it’s such a hard degree for everybody that you tend to bond together with a ground of peers that help each other get through the degree. So I think it’s a matter of shifting perspectives and — so much in the media we tend to focus on, ‘Oh, there’s so many challenges for women in tech and engineering.’ That’s true, but we don’t do a good enough job of talking about success stories and why we love what we do,” she said.
Locally, organizations such as Women In Science and Engineering Newfoundland and Labrador (WISENL) have been speaking up on the subject of excelling and enjoying jobs in the sciences, offering talks and mentorships.
Panek said she has been diving into projects that excite her, continuously learning and moving along a path that is anything but always clearly defined.
“I still don’t know how I’m going to be an astronaut and that’s perfectly OK. The point is you’re having these experiences (in science) and pushing yourself and seeing what your limits are and hopefully inspiring yourself along the way,” she said.