Natalie_Panek_400x400“With the support of my physics teacher I had my first glimpse into the type of research and science that I could be doing in real life.”

Natalie is speaking at our Women of Influence Evening Series event on October 27 in Toronto. Get your tickets today!

By Hailey Eisen | Photography by Immediate Group

 
Advocating for women in STEM isn’t rocket science, but Natalie Panek’s day job certainly is. The 31-year-old, space-robot-building rocket scientist is living her childhood dream working in the aerospace industry, while paving the way for other young women interested in science and technology.

By day Natalie works in mission systems for MDA, the Brampton-based robotics and automation company known for building the Canadarm. Outside of work, she extends her expertise and knowledge to girls looking to get into the tech world through public speaking and her aptly named blog, THEPANEKROOM.

“A few years ago I realized, as I was looking for mentors, that I’ve had all these cool experiences that I could be sharing,” Natalie explains. “[I wanted to] create a space where other young people, especially women, could connect with me and ask questions that are sometimes hard to find on Google.” From What should I study in university? to What type of scholarships should I apply for?—questions come in from girls themselves and their parents, eager to connect with a young person who has made a name for herself in the field. “Interestingly, I have a lot of dads thanking me for giving them a space to go online with their daughters to see cool science experiments and learn more about women in tech.”

With women still vastly underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, Natalie says she’s typically among the 10% of females in any given position or project she’s working on. And she’s highly committed to changing this.

“Interestingly, I have a lot of dads thanking me for giving them a space to go online with their daughters to see cool science experiments and learn more about women in tech.”

It is her belief that inspiring women in STEM begins with children, sparking their creativity and capturing their interests at a young age. From there we must focus on high school and university students, keeping them interested in these subject areas and providing them with the resources and support networks needed to graduate. Finally, support is also needed for young women as they find their first jobs, progress through management, and eventually into director and board-level positions.

So what was it that inspired this Calgary native’s passion for space travel and robotics? It began with a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut and then watching Canadian astronauts Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette living that dream. Combine that with the television series Stargate SG1, a passion she shared with her mom, and throw in one inspiring and supportive high school physics teacher—who happened to be a woman.

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“Physics was my favourite subject and this teacher taught us not to settle, to dive into the questions, and to be aggressively curious—I stuck with those philosophies throughout my career.”

As part of her high school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, Natalie was required to do a major research paper. “I chose to study dark matter and how you can measure it in the universe,” she recalls. “With the support of my physics teacher I had my first glimpse into the type of research and science that I could be doing in real life.”

While there continues to be many obstacles and challenges facing women in science and technology related fields, Natalie says she’s been fortunate that her hard work led to many excellent opportunities: from earning degrees in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, to being the first female driver of the University of Calgary’s inaugural solar powered vehicle—which she and her team raced from Texas to Calgary—to interning with NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center and Ames Research Center.

“Perhaps I’m naturally prone to persevering and working through challenges,” says the passionate outdoorswoman who grew up camping, hiking, and exploring the Rockies and beyond. “My greatest challenge has been self-doubt in my skills and capabilities.” This was especially true when she accepted a job in robotics at MDA without any prior experience in the field. “It was a matter of believing that I belonged and had the expertise to contribute. I [had to] put myself outside of my comfort zone and convince myself that I absolutely had a place there and had something to give.”

 

Thank you to Activia for helping Women of Influence bring Natalie Panek and Dina Pugliese to the stage for our Evening Series Event on October 27. Buy your tickets now!