For so many people, the thought of space exploration is a reality so removed from their own that it seems almost unreal. For rocket scientist Natalie Panek, space exploration has always been a serious goal — one which she has been working towards since the beginning of her career in the aerospace industry, including her current position working as a mission systems engineer at MDA’s Robotics and Automatic Division.

 

In Part 1 of her interview, Panek shares with us the roots of her interest in space, how that interest led to a career in aerospace engineering and robotics, and how she continues to work towards her ultimate goal of traveling to and exploring space firsthand!

 

Panek has always been fascinated with exploring the unknown, and her pursuit of a career in the aerospace industry was largely born out of a desire to satisfy that curiosity (thepanekroom.com)

Panek has always been fascinated with exploring the unknown, and her pursuit of a career in the aerospace industry was largely born out of a desire to satisfy that curiosity (thepanekroom.com)

MUIPR: When was it that you first decided that you wanted to pursue a career in space exploration and robotics? Was it something that you had always been interested in, or can you really pinpoint the moment that you discovered your passion for it?

NATALIE PANEK: I have always been fascinated by adventure, exploration, and the unknown, so a desire to travel to space and a career in the aerospace industry was a natural progression at an early age. Space travel is the epitome of exploration and what it means to dream. Robotics however, is a field that I had never considered until being hired by a space robotics company after my master’s degree. It is so important to have an open mind as you navigate a career and embrace opportunities that are unexpected or that do not exactly align with what you anticipated.

 

MUIPR: Were there ever times that you were unsure about pursuing your chosen path and considered going a different route?

PANEK: There definitely have been times, and still are times, that I am unsure about pursuing my chosen path. There are a variety of disciplines I am interested in and often consider trying something different or pursuing a field that is completely foreign, simply for the challenge. Immersing yourself in experiences that are outside of your comfort zone is very rewarding, so long as you can identify resources and ask questions to get comfortable. Then when you become comfortable in an experience, put yourself right back outside of your comfort zone. This ensures that you grow personally and professionally while continuously developing new skills.

 

For Panek, communicating aspects of her work with the youth is such a major part of what she does, and she frequently educates audiences on the topics like scientific literacy (uknow.ga)

For Panek, communicating aspects of her work to the public is a major part of what she does, and she frequently educates the youth on topics like scientific literacy (uknow.ga)

MUIPR: Can you elaborate a bit on the work that you do as a robotic operator and aerospace engineer?

PANEK: The work that I do focuses on space robotics and other space exploration programs. For example, building robotic arms that could repair broken satellites in orbit or studying how hazardous lunar dust affects the components of a rover. While I really enjoy the technical aspects of these programs, I am equally as passionate about communicating the work I do to the public and educating youth on the importance of scientific literacy. Scientific literacy means encouraging youth to ask questions and seek out the answers about even the simplest experiences in life. This means teaching youth to be both informed and engaged with the world around them – questioning the validity of information presented to them and thinking intelligently about the world we live in. Understanding science is the foundation for an innovative society and for creating a better future.

 

MUIPR: One of your ultimate life goals is to have the opportunity to travel to space. What are some of the educational and professional goals which you have already accomplished throughout your studies and career that you are most proud of and that you hope can help pave the way towards your goal of firsthand space exploration.

PANEK: Most opportunities and experiences I pursue are with the long-term goal of space travel in mind. Whether learning how to fly or driving a solar powered car across North America, I aim to build a tool belt of skill sets and experiences that will help strategically align with what it takes to become an astronaut. But, becoming an astronaut is not the easiest thing to do. Space travel is a long-term goal, and in the meantime, I participate in projects that can make a positive impact.

 

Next week, Panek talks to us about her love for adventure, what being an adventurer means to her, and how she thinks adventure and her work in rocket science inform one another. She also talks to us a bit more about her website, The Panek Room, where she shares with readers updates on her own work in robotics and the aerospace industry, science news, personal adventure stories, and news on women in STEM. She tells us what inspired her to start the site and what she hoped to accomplish by creating it.

 

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