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Mission Possible: What Natalie Panek's space odyssey means for young women

Natalie Panek

Natalie Panek.

SciFri Night at the Ontario Science Centre. Panek talking about how to innovate for extreme environments.

Testing the University of Calgary's inaugural solar car, which was raced from Texas to Calgary.

Panek with the Next Generation Canadarm in a shoot for Discovery Channel's, Daily Planet.

Natalie Panek's 2012 TEDxYouth@Toronto talk was quick to hone in on women whose names we know – reality show stars and lingerie models. While the audience was familiar with Heidi Klum and Kim Kardashian, they were lost when she mentioned high-achievers like Melissa Pemberton and Marissa Mayer. For women in fields like aerospace engineering and aeronautics, this lack of popular representation is expected. Panek's mission is to change that.
"Women are three times less likely than men to take a risk," she said in her speech. "So how do we encourage women to be bold, how do we encourage women to push themselves and thrive in unfamiliar situations?  My recommendation is to have more female mentors, in engineering and the sciences, at the forefront of the media. Have them at the focal point of the media using the Internet, radio, and TV."
Panek, the outdoorsy, Calgary-born robotic operator and aerospace engineer at MDA Space Missions, is a veritable force. At 20, she helped drive a solar-powered car over 1200 miles in the North American Solar Challenge. She holds degrees in Aerospace and Mechanical engineering and has had the goal of travelling to space and becoming an astronaut "probably since Jr. High," she says. "I remember in high school being pretty adamant that that was what I was going to be."
While attending the University of Calgary, she had the opportunity to build a solar-powered car and race it. She jumped at the chance. The cars race from Texas to Calgary. "I believe we finished 13th out of 42. We did very well considering it was our first car and we built it in nine months. I got to be part of the aerodynamics team so again that was another path toward me getting into space. I was trying to pick up on things that could add to my portfolio of experiences."

Panek did a brief stint working in the oil and gas industry, which provided her with the capital to get her pilot's licence – another step towards her goal. Throughout it all, she says she witnessed a real lack of female colleagues working alongside her. There had to be some way to increase those numbers. The idea stuck with her. 
In 2007, she moved to Toronto to pursue her Masters degree in aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical/space engineering at the University of Toronto. 

"I was researching combustion and micro-gravity," she says. "We were studying how things burned at really extreme environments. It was pushing the limits of what we know about propulsion in the aviation industry. Emissions from aircrafts have increased by about 87 per cent in the last fifteen years, and the number of passenger aircrafts are set to increase by 90 per cent in 2030, which is a huge amount of aircraft flying in air, and all of the support structure on ground, and all these extra emissions. So if we can understand propulsion and try to improve that, it can lessen the impact on the environment." 
After internships at NASA where she worked on–among other things–a mission to Mars, she was hired on to work on MDA Space Missions' Next-Generation Canadarm. 
"The goal was to build these new robotic arms that could be launched into orbit on some sort of spacecraft. It could dock at a satellite that was broken down and either repair broken parts or pump fuel into it. A satellite then can be used again instead of just becoming space junk. It was really the catalyst for this new wave of satellite servicing." 
Panek is now one of only a few people that can operate the Next-Generation Canadarm robot. "I was there from the very beginning until the end. I saw the entire life cycle of the project."
Panek wasn't formed in a vacuum though. The support of her peers and mentors has been essential. She views having positive female role models and mentors as being instrumental in getting more women in STEM fields. She has been mentor and mentee, learning things bi-directionally. 
"I'm involved in two programs. One of them is called the Cybermentor program. The other one is the CanWIT (Canadian Women in Technology) e-mentorship program. They're basically online platforms where you're paired up with a girl in junior high or high school, and you just email back and forth. They have the opportunity to ask questions, get your advice – anything. It's so easy because everyone has access to email these days. I have a mentor who is in high school, who wants to know what she should be studying, what subjects she could be taking, is there anything she can do to get ready for university. Another girl I'm mentoring who is just finishing her undergrad is asking me for advice on how to apply to grad schools, where should she be looking to find where the best schools are, should she be contacting professors. It's really about having easy access to these answers in the steps before."
Brandi Chuchman directs Cybermentor, which pairs high school girls with female mentors in STEM fields. It encourages women to keep their options open in the fields of mathematics and science.
Role models are not some dated concept: "It's always easier for anyone to see themselves in a role if there is someone in that role that is somebody they can personally relate to," says Chuchman.  "If I see a woman that has a similar background to me, being successful in a particular field, I'm more likely to think that I can do that too."
In addition, Panek wants to shift media focus toward smart, inventive women. "I'm a big believer that our media doesn't do justice to the amount of intelligent women there are out there doing cool things and interacting with technology. I want to have better odds of turning on the TV and seeing an adventurer, or scientist, or engineer." 
To address this in the meantime, Panek has started her own online resource centre for young women interested in STEM fields, The Panek Room. In it, she describes her experience being mentored by Lieutenant Colonel Maryse Carmichael, Pilot and first female Commanding Officer of the Canadian Snowbirds. She writes: "Maryse is an amazing role model for women, showing determination, perseverance, and strength of character throughout her career." 
Panek also uses the Panek Room to series Women Engineering Change, document her Saturday Science Sessions (where she tackles a new project every week and reports on her findings), and outline a full list of opportunities and contacts for young women pursuing a career in the sciences. In essence, her free time is largely consumed with celebrating science, and actively advocating for young women pursuing careers in it.
David Zingg, the Director of the University of Toronto's Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), noted, "Unfortunately, aerospace has a smaller percentage of women than many disciplines in North America." However, this is changing. 
UTIAS has seen an uptick in women enrolling after hiring two female professors (the first in 2007, the second was this year). As far as graduate students at UTIAS, "In 2003-4 we had 11 female students out of a total graduate student population of 98, or 11.2 per cent. In 2012-3 we have 26 female students out of 158, or 16.5 per cent. So the number of female students has more than doubled, and the percentage has increased from 11 per cent to 16 per cent." 
Notable examples of alumnae include Jan Chodas, who has held several senior positions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (including Project Manager of the Juno mission to Jupiter). Xinfeng Gao was recently hired as a professor at Colorado State University. Regina Lee is a professor at York University. Irene Guiamatsia is a Research Associate in Computational Mechanics at the University of Sydney. There are also many female UTIAS graduates in Canadian industry at Bombardier, MDA, and the CSA. 
"And of course you are aware of Natalie Panek, of whom we are very proud." Zingg believes a great deal more needs to be done at the younger levels to encourage women to get into these fields. "There are so many societal biases that are keeping the numbers down. It starts at the younger levels. But the number of role models continues to increase, which can only help."

For young women forging careers in STEM, Panek has simple advice: "Create as many options as you can for yourself, so you have a number of opportunities to move from. As long as you're learning while you’re doing it, and you feel challenged, I don’t think you can have any regrets." 
Panek's come full circle, from admiring to being admired. When she mentions Dr. Roberta Bondar, Canada's first woman in space, Panek says, "I got her autograph when I was a kid. I just received an award a few months ago from the University of Calgary and she sent me a personal letter congratulating me. I don't know how they set it up, but I thought it was the coolest thing."
Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator who lives in Toronto. She is drawn to the quirky and eclectic stories of those that live and work here. 
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