Natalie Panek is a Missions Systems Engineer and advocate for the advancement of women in STEM fields. She holds degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering and develops foundational technologies for space development and exploration.
Outside of the lab, Natalie is an avid adventurer and sought-after speaker and writer. You can find more of her work at the Panek Room, or by following her contributions to The Next Women and the Women’s Executive Network. Recently, she was kind enough to spare time for a few questions on space, engineering, and mentoring women in STEM careers.
You’re a pilot, you’ve gone skydiving, caving, climbing, hiking, camping … and you design, analyze, and pilot space robots. What’s the common thread?
The common thread between these activities is a sense of adventure, the ability to push your limits, and learning. All of these activities provide great opportunities to learn and have some facet of science and technology involved. They are fascinating to me.
What is it about space travel and exploration that draws you so powerfully?
Space travel is the ultimate for me. I like the idea that traveling to space could be a very long-term goal and there is so much positive change I can create while en route to achieving it.
Realistically, there are pretty small odds of actually getting to space, but if I live life to the fullest and work towards other goals, I won’t be disappointed if I do not get there.
You’ve said in the past that you don’t ‘want’ to be an astronaut, you’re ‘going’ to be an astronaut … You’ve the engineering chops, you’re a pilot, and you’re unquestionably an adventurer … Was space your goal from the beginning, or was it simply the greatest adventure available?
The idea of becoming an astronaut was born sometime when I was in high school. I cannot really say why or how it happened (aside from loving ‘space’), but I have stuck with it ever since.
Space travel is the epitome of exploration and what it means to dream. I think the best and most unexpected part of this goal is that I have had some pretty neat experiences along the way. These experiences are very helpful when inspiring the next generation of women to pursue STEM careers.
On Space Engineering and Exploration:
With the CSA and NASA experiencing serious funding difficulties, where can future astronauts and aerospace engineers pin their hopes?
Space exploration is at a tipping point right now. Yes, there are undeniably funding cuts to the major government agencies, but these difficulties are a perfect opportunity for start-ups and private companies to flourish and drastically improve the efficiency of developing space technology.
SpaceX really is such a fundamental example of succeeding at space innovation by eliminating the inefficiencies of bureaucracy. Do not count out NASA or the CSA – these organizations are still doing incredible research and science.
How does one become an astronaut, anyway? Our nations seem to be deprioritizing manned space flight for the near term.
Deprioritizing manned space flight is definitely a valid point. The whole space industry is changing so much right now. It really is rather exciting – to see if the next generation of astronauts will be privatized and whether citizenship will really matter in the next era of space travel.
I have always found it strange that, when exploring space and moving beyond the boundaries of Earth, we, as humans, still have this unwavering nationalism. I hope that the next generation of space travel will be an international endeavor, truly accomplished by nations working together.
What’s the most interesting project on your desk, these days?
I am in a lucky position of having many interesting projects on the go at work. Developing a dexterous tool for orbital debris mitigation, a lunar dust mitigation study, developing mechanisms to improve satellite capabilities, the DARPA Phoenix Program, and writing proposals for new work. I love the opportunity to get my hands on a very diverse cross-section of Canadian space initiatives.
Your work at MDA and your academic publications focus on key challenges to space exploration and development – in-orbit infrastructure, refining, habitation … What other technical hurdles do you see as meriting attention in the near term?
Technical hurdles are often directly related to cost. Challenges can usually be overcome assuming there is enough money involved. The lack of government funding for science and exploration needs to be resolved.
On Empowering Women in STEM Careers:
You’ve indicated that a lack of cultural role models is a subtle, but powerful, obstacle to young women pursuing STEM careers. Who were your own role models, growing up? Whom can women look to today?
People always ask me who my role models were growing up and I always have a hard time naming any. This is just evidence of how few visible female role models there are in these fields.
I grew up in a family where adventure and the outdoors were at the core and we all also just happened to love science fiction. Watching Star Trek, Stargate, practically anything else on the Space channel were routine activities. I think this influenced my career path more than anything. I also took advantage of the female mentors I connected with in University – female professors, my instructor for my pilot’s license, or even a mentorship program through the Women’s Executive Network (WXN), where I was mentored by Maryse Carmichael. The key to mentorship is that it really is bi-directional; you can be both a mentor and a mentee in most stages of your career.
We need to be leveraging the fact that women are naturally mentors and nurturers. Fortunately, women are very good at building communities and support systems. This will be indicative of a very powerful shift in technology over the next few decades, as those who can build networks and provide access to mentors will be very successful.
I am a tireless advocate for trying to get more women in tech and engineering at the forefront of the media – networks like Discovery – they need more female hosts on their shows, discussing intelligent topics. We need the next generation of women to perceive STEM fields as part of the norm.
What are you most proud of, in respect to paving the way for future generations of female engineers and scientists?
I am just starting out on this path towards encouraging women and appreciate that there is still a lot of work to be done. We need to focus on why women involved with technology love what they do – highlighting any challenges that women face will likely only be a deterrent for young women.
I am not saying to ignore challenges if they arise, but we need to inspire first. I received a lot of positive feedback on my TEDx Talk about revolutionizing women in technology, but there was also a lot of negative feedback. Unfortunately, those people missed the entire point of the talk. The sole objective was to highlight that society has a problem inspiring young women to pursue STEM fields, not that women in STEM are treated unfairly or should be given an easier time. Paving the way for future generations of female engineers and scientists could be as simple as ensuring that the majority of youth can identify a female scientist or engineer, instead of a reality TV star.
How would you describe the Cybermentor program and what do you feel you can accomplish there?
Cybermentor offers high-quality opportunities for young women to engage with, ask questions, and interact with someone in their possible field of interest. This provides a gateway to opportunities that these young women may not have otherwise had. Access to women in STEM fields via Cybermentor, in addition to workshops, online resources, and other events, provides options for rewarding career paths, while building confidence in girls and opportunities to discover new interests.