In the third and final part of her interview, rocket scientist Natalie Panek discusses her own struggles as a woman working in a male-dominated field, some of the more positive aspects of being a woman in STEM, and the importance of giving successful women in STEM greater presence in the media. It is Panek’s belief that the media plays an important role in spotlighting important women and STEM and making these women more accessible and familiar to girls at large. This can transform the public image, generate awareness, and change the conversation on women in STEM. It can also give young girls positive role models in these fields.

 

Panek became the first woman to drive a solar powered car when she drove the University of Calgary's inaugural solar powered vehicle in a race from Texas to Calgary (yongestreetmedia.ca)

Panek became the first woman to drive a solar powered car when she drove the University of Calgary’s inaugural solar powered vehicle in a race from Texas to Calgary (yongestreetmedia.ca)

MUIPR: Being a woman in a male-dominated field certainly comes with a wealth of hardships. What are some of the struggles that you have faced during your work in rocket science, and how have those struggles shaped you as a scientist, an engineer, and as a person overall?

NATALIE PANEK: Most of my struggles have been on a personal level; believing in myself and building the confidence to try opportunities [can be] intimidating. When I was learning how to fly, I constantly felt intimidated by the environment, my peers, and even the planes. I had to learn how to overcome a lack of confidence to accomplish an amazing feat and embrace an opportunity to learn topics completely foreign to me.

 

MUIPR: There is so much more to being a woman in STEM than overcoming these challenges, though, and there are so many rewarding and unique experiences that women can have in these fields. You have personally had the chance to experience some major milestones as a woman working in robotics and engineering. For example, not only did you get to help build the University of Calgary’s inaugural solar powered vehicle, but you also got to be the vehicle’s first ever female driver. Can you describe that experience and why you think it’s so important to highlight these positive aspects of being a woman in STEM in addition to the hardships?

PANEK: The significance of being a woman driving a solar powered car became so evident when we crossed the finish line back on our home campus. There were dozens of young girls lining up for my autograph — to meet a solar car driver, who was a woman. In that instant, I was a visible role model of a woman succeeding in STEM. Having visible women working in male-dominated fields is critical for encouraging young women to build, tinker, and experiment and to embrace hands-on work. Ultimately, this will lead to a more diverse workforce, which stimulates innovation.

 

Panek is a strong advocate for women in STEM. Not only does she address the topic through public speaking, but she also participates in different mentoring programs which allow her to have a direct influence on young girls interested in STEM (theinvisiblementor.com)

Panek is a strong advocate for women in STEM. Not only does she address the topic through public speaking, but she also participates in different mentoring programs which allow her to have a direct influence on young girls interested in STEM (theinvisiblementor.com)

MUIPR: Did you have women who you looked up to in STEM growing up? If so, how did having these role models inform your career path?

PANEK: There were very few women in STEM who were accessible as role models when I was growing up. Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first female astronaut, was definitely a visible influencer and proof that dreams are possible. I also grew up in a family where adventure and the outdoors were valued. We spent a lot of time watching science fiction, [like] “Star Trek” or “Stargate.” More mentors entered my life as I progressed in my career, including my instructor for my pilot’s license; or Maryse Carmichael, the first female Commander of the Canadian Snowbirds. The key to mentorship is that it really is bi-directional; you can be both a mentor and a mentee in almost every stage of your career. I also recommend as a woman in STEM not only looking for female mentors, but men who can be your champions and provide resources to succeed.

 

MUIPR: You’ve also talked in the past about the fact that even though there are so many women whom girls can look up to in STEM, few girls actually know the names of the female trailblazers in STEM who have come before them. Why is it so important, in your opinion, to change and strengthen the presence that women leaders in STEM have in the media?

PANEK: The biggest advantage STEM careers afford is the opportunity to work with technology. Ultimately, technology does and will continue to positively shape the world. Building and designing technology that can change the way we live and work is fulfilling, and women in STEM are critical for communicating this to the next generation of women. We need to be leveraging the fact that women are natural mentors and nurturers. Fortunately, women are very good at building communities and support systems. This will be indicative of a very powerful shift in technology over the next few decades as those who can build networks and provide access to mentors will be very successful. An easy way to provide access to mentors and role models is directly via the media. I am a tireless advocate for trying to get more women in tech and engineering at the forefront of the media. Whether on TV, in movies, or even social media platforms, the world needs more women in the media discussing intelligent topics. We need the next generation of women to perceive STEM fields as part of the norm.

 

MUIPR: You have been recognized and honored on numerous occasions for your work, including being named one of CBC’s 12 young leaders changing Canada and one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network. Canada’s Financial Post has also described you as a vocal advocate for women in technology. What is it like for you to be recognized as someone who is a strong force for change by paving the way for other women in tech? How does it feel to know that you have become one of the women inspiring other girls to pursue STEM?

PANEK: I am really just starting out on this path towards encouraging women to pursue STEM and appreciate that there is still a lot of work to be done. We need to focus on why women involved with technology love what we do rather than focusing on the challenges. I am not saying to ignore the challenges, but we definitely need to inspire first. Paving the way for future generations of female engineers and scientists could be as simple as ensuring that the majority of youth can identify a female scientist or engineer instead of a reality TV star.

 

For more information on Natalie Panek and her work, or to stay up to date on her incredible adventures, visit her blog at thepanekroom.com.

 

Check back next week to see who we will be featuring next in our Women Leaders in STEM series!

 

If you are a woman working in STEM and are interested in being featured in our ‘Women Leaders in STEM’ series, shoot us an email at blog.muipr@gmail.com or tweet me @tamarahoumi