Natalie Panek, Space Missions Engineer, on Inspiring Gen Y Women into Tech

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Natalie Panek tells us what she loves about her job developing technology for extreme environments, including working on a mission to Mars, and looks at how girls and Generation Y women can be inspired to join the exciting field of technology.

Every now and again I am asked why I enjoy what I do. It is not just that I enjoy my job; it’s that I love engineering change and using innovation and creativity to find solutions to complex and advanced problems or interacting with transformative technology.

I’m not going to tell you all of my flaws right off the bat

Women engineers are a bit of an anomaly – roughly only 20% of engineering students are female. This number is a fairly positive estimate, and tends to decrease as women enter the workforce. This number has also been pretty stagnant for the last decade. Considering how much technology is inherently part of our everyday life, these numbers should definitely be higher, or at least increasing.

So how do we inspire women to be audacious? To challenge women at every stage of their careers, encourage women to thrive in unfamiliar situations, and become leaders in their fields?

When I first started an internship at Goddard Spaceflight Center, my mentor gave me two books by the iconic physicist Feynman. The books were fascinating; mostly because of Feynman’s character and the way he approached life.

I tackle everyday with absolute curiosity

It taught me the following:

Tackle everyday with absolute curiosity. And a fascinating sense of aggressive curiosity. Pushing not only ‘why’ things work and do what they do, but also testing ideas and theories. And this leads to revolution and innovation.

We should be encouraging more women to be fearless, to lead innovation, and to tackle engineering and advanced technology development.

Now I am a Mission Systems Engineer at MDA Space Missions and a robotic operator for the Next Generation Canadarm Testbed and hardware. Sometimes I like to think that I got here by the happy coincidence of working on what I call ‘technology for extreme environments’.

I helped design and build a solar powered car that I got to race across North America: So can you!

I helped design and build a solar powered car that I got to race across North America, lying down on my back and driving the space-ship shaped car like a tank. We used an array of solar cells to drive a rear-wheel motor housed in an aerodynamic shell. The solar cell technology itself wasn’t extreme, but the idea that a car could be propelled at 100km/hr for 8 hour days using only solar energy was about pushing energy innovation.

I got my VFR pilot’s license to fly a single-engine aircraft. I studied combustion in a microgravity environment during grad school. Pushing the limits of our knowledge at how flames burn at extremely high and low pressures.

I worked on a Mission to Mars: So can you!

Then I worked on a Mission to Mars. In a typical Martian mission, crew members would construct and live in a habitat on the surface of the planet.

In our Mission, we proposed that crew members live in the pathway of lava tubes or caves under the surface of the planet.

Through these projects I have witnessed firsthand the positive impacts that technology can have on society. How we can revolutionize the way we live and work using innovation and how rewarding this feels.

And it became so clear through these projects, just how many diverse opportunities there are for women in technology and engineering. We just need to do a much better job at showcasing why women already involved in technology love what they do.

Women already involved in technology love what they do

The twitter world and other forms of social media are generally inundated with all of the hardships and challenges women in technology face. This negative perspective will not help inspire the next generation. It’s like going on a first date; I’m not going to tell you all of my flaws right off the bat. I am going to impress you with my awesomeness first!

So first we must inspire and motivate, then help build the skills women need to succeed and excel in these fields.

So how do we inspire at a young age? How do we make interacting with technology seem natural for young women? The answer is through media.

We live in a day and age where we can change the world with the click of a mouse. We can spread information and ideas almost instantaneously, as if an idea could be contagious. And yet we are failing at showcasing powerful women in tech via the media and providing better access to female role models.

Media is a direct opportunity to encourage women to dive head-on into challenging professions by placing inspiring women in the spotlight via TV or social media.

On TV I want to see a female engineer, scientist, or adventurer rather than a reality TV star

We should be marrying pop culture with leadership; showcasing women who are catalysts for change through every avenue of media. And by this I mean turning on the TV and have better odds of seeing a female engineer, scientist, or adventurer than a reality TV star. Tapping in to the powerful influence that women like Ziya Tong of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet can provide.

Beyond this, we need to help develop skill sets for women to thrive at every stage of their careers. These skill sets like toughness, discipline, and confidence will allow women to actively seek out unfamiliar situations and challenge.

Providing motivation for the next generation of female leaders to be fearless and innovative, commanding a movement and doing so by engaging other women, especially the women of Gen Y.  Leading a vision for how technology can change society, while building a community of supporters to transform ideas into a reality.

Engaging a community of change makers to be champions, as it is a certainty that hardships will be endured en route to progressing technology.

The key to the next generation of technology will be learning how to tap into one very important resource: women.

We need to foster the imagination and the drive of young women, to start influencing, changing, and revolutionizing the world. To encourage women to strive for excellence. To establish strong foundations. To be tough, disciplined, competent, confident, and responsible for their actions. To be leaders.

Watch Natalie's fantastic TEDx talk on empowering more women to enter the field of STEM.

Natalie Panek is a robotic operator and aerospace engineer at MDA Space Missions, previously interning at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center and NASA Ames Research Center. She’s driven a solar-powered car across North America, has a pilot’s license, and skydived with Korea’s first Astronaut. With degrees in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Natalie has co-authored papers on Microgravity Combustion and On-orbit Satellite Servicing. She is an advocate for women in STEM, encouraging women to dive head-on into challenging careers. She has spoken at TEDx and on multiple panels for women in tech on the topics of advancement, leadership, and space exploration.

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