An Aerospace Engineer’s Top 8 Lessons for Women in Tech
Aerospace engineer Natalie Panek shares the lessons she’s learned from an exciting career working at the cutting edge of tech, including a project to create a solar powered car to travel at 100km/hour!
I like to live each day embracing every moment while tackling audacious goals. This is probably what has led me to pursue a career in aerospace engineering and fall in love with technology. Along the way I have gathered a few lessons learned as a woman in tech.
1. Embrace Perspective
There is incredible value to the insight that perspective can bring, especially when working in a team environment. After all, perspective fosters objectivity, which ultimately gives way to progress. Perspective allows you to follow as well as lead, to sell your own vision, but also support and listen to the vision and dreams of others.
During my undergraduate degree I participated in a team that designed and built a solar powered car, which we raced across North America.
I had the opportunity to drive that car, lying down on my back, steering the space-ship shaped vehicle 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 at the time wasn’t extreme or even revolutionary, but the idea that a car could be propelled at 100km/hour for 8 hour days using only solar power was about pushing energy innovation.
For the two years I worked on that project, I learned the ins and outs of teamwork; the camaraderie and support that accumulates when a group of peers are working towards a common goal, and of the frustration when team mates are over working and success isn’t immediate.
The success of that inaugural solar car relied on the communal efforts of a team and the strengths of individuals. And that legacy started and propelled year after year by new teams, will hopefully lead to advances in solar technology.
It was about respecting and utilizing the ability of others, realizing that we worked toward a common goal – this is the foundation of teamwork and perspective. It is perspective after all, that allows you to see the horizon from all directions and be prepared for opportunities when they arise.
2. Be in Charge of Your Opportunities
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...” – Dr. Seuss.
The best option is to create as many opportunities as you can for yourself. Identifying goals and the resources needed to achieve them, recognizing opportunities when presented with them, and seizing them. Take for example Heather Payne. Heather founded Canadian-based Ladies Learning Code, a not-for-profit with the goal of teaching women how to code. As an entrepreneur, Heather is able to have control over her ideas and her vision for her brand. Allowing her to step up as leader, choose her path, and essentially making a tangible difference in generating interest in tech among women and girls!
3. Positivity and a Work-Life Balance
A positive attitude will get you far and can make a significant impact on how you are relayed to colleagues and managers. Adopting enthusiasm in the workplace and making time for extra-curricular activities is definitely what has gotten me through the occasional difficulties of working in a male-dominated industry, specifically in space where strict laws and regulations can make pursuing this career feel cumbersome.
Having a positive attitude can cause an explosive chain reaction of amazing events, acting as a catalyst for the achievement of extraordinary things.
This is exactly how Founder Yael Cohen transformed F*** Cancer into a successful charity after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Believing that "…if I don’t take care of myself I can’t really take care of anyone else", Yael strives for a well-balanced life, which will ultimately only further propel her cause and help achieve her mission.
4. Harness Unfamiliarity
Charles Darwin said that “It’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but those most responsive to change.”
There is something powerful in harnessing the strength that comes from surviving an uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation. The key is to embrace those experiences and learn how to thrive in them. We are not defined by our experiences, but how we react to those experiences and the attitudes we choose to adopt. Transform tension into innovation, tackle challenge with an open mind, and take risks.
One of the most impactful risks a woman in any industry can take is conquering the fear of public speaking. Challenging yourself to speak in front of small or large groups of people can teach you a lot; including how to be a skilful communicator and how to be persuasive when selling ideas.
I recently watched a video profiling Ti-Anna Wang, a vocal advocate for Chinese dissident families. When Ti-Anna was 13, her father, Wang Bingzhang, was sentenced to life in prison in China for his role in political activism. At 14, she attended her first press conference for her father - terrified of public speaking and resenting him for the position she was in. By 19, Ti-Anna was advocating for her father’s release full time, and by 24 was meeting with human rights NGO’s, recognizing that she has been given the gift of a voice. Do not be afraid to adapt to change and recognize that harnessing an uncomfortable situation can change the world.
5. Learn the Value of Trade-offs (on technical and personal levels)
Recognizing trade-offs from a technical perspective propels complex projects and stimulates innovation in extreme environments. In the engineering and tech industries, projects evolve from trade-offs between cost, risk, safety, efficiency, complexity, and many other factors.
A successful engineer will train themselves to constantly evaluate trade-offs. However, this does not mean one must give up a dream or the will to enable it. It is just about being prepared enough to make those dreams a reality.
Mars exploration missions are a perfect example of this, starting from trade-offs between sending humans or robots.
If humans go, will the mission be one-way? What is the best way to land a rover on the surface of another planet? How many advanced science instruments are required? The list of trade-offs are endless, but it is balancing these trade-offs that ultimately make exploration possible.
6. Appreciate the Small Things
I constantly remind myself that we can never take back or recreate an instant in time, and it is so important to be grateful for the small things when they do happen. I had the privilege of attending the 2009 Space Studies Program at NASA Ames hosted by the International Space University. One evening during the program, all of the students headed out into a parking lot on the main campus to watch the International Space Station fly overhead. Even though International Space Station fly-bys are common, it is the instantaneity of time that is irreplaceable.
We can never recreate the conditions of that evening again, standing together in a parking lot at NASA Ames with like-minded students from all over the world, and watching the station in its entire complex elegance fly overhead.
There were so many small occurrences that when I just stopped, froze everything around me, and thought about the significance, made me feel like the luckiest person in the world. Appreciating the small moments like these is critical to staying focused and grounded in fast-paced and hectic work environments.
7. Take the good with the bad
Maybe part of the reason that optimists are so successful is that they work through the world as it actually is.
They do not have a false or inflated view of the world but rather recognize how to adjust to the challenges that life presents and plan a course of action to battle through it, ultimately resulting in a positive outlook. Sometimes it is worth diving head-first into a situation and improvising as obstacles appear.
I recently heard entrepreneur Sarah Prevette, founder of Sprouter and BetaKit, say that stormy seas make for skilful sailors. Having gone through a rollercoaster of experiences from announcing the closure of Sprouter, to then being purchased by Post Media, she definitely understands that in any entrepreneurial environment or an environment that develops advanced technology, there will be ups and downs but those who can ride out the storm will find success.
8. Life-long Learning
When it comes to learning, nothing is off limits; there is always more to discover. Life-long learning is epitomized by the iconic verses of Dr. Seuss: “The more you read, the more you will know. The more that you learn the more places you’ll go.” Never put a limit on what you can learn, your imagination, or the power of a dream.
Daring to achieve the impossible is how we will define the next era of technology. It is the quest for knowledge that drives what is possible.
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. See more here.
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