Natalie Panek has been staring up at the stars with curiosity and wonder ever since she was a child growing up in the Canadian Rockies, when camping and hiking excursions meant plenty of weekends spent in the back country, where she’d gaze at the sky.
Watching TV shows like Star Trek and Stargate SG-1 with her mom made things even clearer for her: Space was calling, and she’d answer by making it her life’s work.
Today, Panek is a mission systems engineer in robotics and automation at Canada’s MDA Corp. outside Toronto, where her team is building the chassis and locomotion system for the European Space Agency’s 2018 ExoMars Rover.
Of course, it’s easy for stories like hers to get lost amid the breathless news coverage of the space industry today. The central figure in that narrative is often a certain space-obsessed male billionaire whose private company’s rocket has pulled off an extraordinary landing, and who captures our imagination with ambitions to make space travel eventually commonplace.
When Panek isn’t helping build and test rovers, she says, she’s working hard to make sure women see reflections of themselves in her industry. “We live in an age where what we see and hear in the media is hugely influential,” Panek says. “Having positive role models in the media can change the game and allow young people to see engineering and technology as fields that are attainable by anyone.”
She points to prominent women in the field like Dava Newman, the recently appointed deputy administrator of NASA; European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti; and Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX.
Panek also relishes the chance to share her own story, which is one reason she’s set up her website, thepanekroom.com, to talk about her work, her adventures, and philosophy about the field.
“We need to inspire girls at a young age to see the potential in science, engineering, technology, and math fields,” Panek says. “The second part of the problem is retaining women in STEM fields throughout their careers, which means stopping the leaky pipeline that’s so common. It’s not enough to talk about record enrollment in engineering or computer science courses in university. A wider perspective is necessary, which looks at the statistics regarding women advancing in their careers into leadership, director-level, and board-level positions.”
Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, likewise sees diversity in her industry as imperative—not just as a good unto itself, but one with plenty of research to back up the benefits.
She points to a report on recruiting women into technical positions that was prepared by the Anita Borg Institute. Among its findings: That there are “consistent blind spots in recruiting and hiring practices” that manifest themselves in things like narrow recruitment criteria, hiring processes that are implicitly biased, and a lack of organizational infrastructure to support diversity efforts.
The paper recommends steps like setting up blind resume screening processes; showcasing technical women during the interview process; and requiring that every open technical position has a viable female candidate.
“I’m always surprised that people from science and engineering will bring their best data and technical chops to tackle scientific and engineering challenges, but then, when it comes to improving the diversity of their workforce, they often act like there’s no research to inform what their approach should be,” Walkowicz says. “The research exists, both on recruiting and on the myriad benefits of diverse teams. We owe it to scientific progress to do better in this regard, so that we can bring the brightest and most capable minds into unlocking the secrets of our universe.”
Walkowicz’s own interest in the field was piqued early when she fell in love with chemistry and physics in high school. She wanted a career that combined both of them, and in the summer after her junior year of high school, she participated in a research program at the New York Academy of Sciences that would point the way.
She worked in a physics lab there during the week. “When the summer was over, I asked the woman who matched students to their host labs whether she knew if anyone would work with me during the school year. She suggested that astronomy might be something that would combine the sciences I liked. I went to work with a professor at New York University who studied the chemistry of planetary atmospheres, and I was hooked.”
As an astronomer today, there’s both a research and a public education component to her work. The research part includes things like writing computer code to analyze data, and writing papers that convey what she’s learned. On the public side, sometimes she’s speaking with planetarium guests. Last fall, she participated in the first Adler Galaxy Ride, a biking science road show from Chicago to St. Louis that included putting on free pop-up science events in cities and towns along the way.
She’s also working on a new project called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which she says is “the flagship observatory for the next decade of astronomy.”
“The telescope itself is currently being built down in Chile, but there’s a lot to do to prepare for it,” Walkowicz says. “I coordinate our science collaborations, the community of hundreds of scientists who will eventually use this amazing telescope to tackle some of the most challenging scientific questions we face. I also recently became the director of the LSST Data Science Fellowship Program; these schools will teach junior astronomers the skills they need to use the deluge of LSST data.”
Vinita Marwaha Madill, a consultant in space engineering and STEM outreach and the founder of Rocket Women, a website focused on women and space, likewise wants to encourage more women to enter the field. Madill’s career included stints as an engineering manager leading the Intelligent Transportation Systems Engineering Team in Canada, and as an International Space Station operations engineer at the German Aerospace Center, among other things.
“Being a consultant, my typical day varies, depending on the projects I’m working on,” Madill says, “from writing a parabolic flight grant proposal, to explaining the nuances of Apollo era spacesuit design—and even discussing diversity.”
Her fascination with space goes back to when she was 6 and growing up in London, when she learned about Helen Sharman, a chemist and the first British astronaut, who flew to Mir. Her parents also helped, taking her to places like the National Space Center in Leicester, England, on the weekends.
One suggestion she has for how to encourage more young women to think about careers in space, science, and related fields that involve technology is to focus on the impact of that technology on people. She points to the design of a satellite, which “as my brilliant and late International Space University professor put it, is ‘an ugly white box.’” Nevertheless, she goes on, initiatives around the world are being pursued to spread affordable Internet access through constellations of micro satellites, giving rural communities a chance at high-speed Internet access and access to better education and knowledge.
“The impact of the project,” she says, “is where I believe you can inspire an increasing number of girls to study engineering and space.”
On Rocket Women, she posts interviews with women around the world in STEM fields, especially space-related, as well as advice to encourage girls to become involved in STEM.
“Watching Helen Sharman’s Soyuz launch on BBC News at a young age, and knowing that there had been a British female astronaut, helped me push through any negativity around my chosen career path when I was younger,” Madill says. “I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, or at least work in human space flight. And eventually I did. But I wouldn’t have had that impetus and drive if I hadn’t known that someone had come before me. There had been a female British astronaut, and maybe there could be again. It was possible. Through featuring advice and stories of women in STEM, I want Rocket Women to give other girls and women that same realization.”