Meet Natalie Panek: Rocket Scientist and Advocate for Women in STEM
Natalie is a rocket scientist, adventurer, and advocate for women in technology. As a Mission Systems Engineer at MDA’s Robotics and Automation division, Natalie works on the next generation of Canadian space robotics and space exploration programs. She seeks to pursue the road less traveled while working towards her dream of becoming an astronaut.
As told to Meghan Jeffery
My first job ever was working at the Calgary Science Center where I welcomed guests on stage prior to shows in their Discovery Dome Theatre. Looking back I realize that job is where I really became comfortable speaking in public in front of large audiences.
I would tell my 20-year-old self to work outside of my comfort zone as much as possible and participate in hands-on projects that provide opportunities for building, making, tinkering, experimenting etc. In the engineering and tech world there is no better experience than literally getting your hands dirty.
My dream job when I was a child was an astronaut. And it still is my dream job today; a long-term goal of space travel that I am always working towards.
My proudest accomplishment was persevering to land a coveted internship position at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. I applied for this scholarship four times and was rejected all four times. After the fourth rejection I had the idea to call the Chief of the Office of Higher Education at NASA and was offered an internship on the spot after the short phone conversation. Never underestimate the power of perseverance.
I went into tech because I love working on challenging problems with the flexibility to brainstorm creative solutions. Plus at my job we build hardware that actually goes to space, which is totally cool. It will be neat to say that I was part of a team that put a rover on Mars.
My best advice to young people starting out in tech is to dream big, dare to achieve the impossible, and stay optimistic. Optimism can make or break a team especially when things go wrong (which they inevitably do!).
My best advice from a mentor was realizing and understanding that it is OK not to know all of the answers all the time.
I balance work and life by making time for priorities – and I think being an engineer teaches you very well how to manage priorities. While I love what I do, I don’t think looking back on my life I’ll wish I spent more time on the computer, but I’ll always want more adventure.
My biggest passion is the outdoors. What I find particularly interesting is how interrelated my career in space and passion for the outdoors has become, especially from a conservationist/activist perspective.
The best extra-curricular activity I got involved with was building a solar powered car as part of a university team that we raced across North America. And I was a driver during the race. Crossing the border between two countries in an experimental test vehicle was unreal.
Women in tech means shedding myopic mentalities and leveraging communities with diverse perspectives to positively affect our future.
Millennials are in a unique position, having been shaped by technology, to harness the digital age that we live in to revolutionize the way we live and work.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know that I play competitive ultimate Frisbee.
I stay inspired by embracing curiosity. I think it is extremely important as we grow to maintain childlike wonder; to look at the world with wide eyes and so many amazing opportunities for lifelong learning.
The future excites me because there are unlimited opportunities to learn and explore. The vastness of space and of the world around us makes us want, and need, to know more.