Natalie Panek: Rocket Scientist, Explorer
Natalie Panek is our new favourite person, and it isn’t hard to figure out why: on her website, she describes herself as a rocket scientist, explorer and champion for women in engineering. What’s not to love?
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
I have had opportunities to work on some amazing projects over the past few years. I've driven a solar-powered car across North America, learned how to fly a plane, and interned at both NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center and NASA AMES Research Center (on a Mission to Mars!). At my current job, I work on space robotics. An example is designing robotic arms to repair and service satellites on orbit that have broken components, or have run out of fuel. Imagine an orbital tow truck! Satellite servicing is important because it enables what I call sustainable exploration and it is so, so critical in the data-driven age that we live in.
How did you first get into science, were you interested in STEM at a young age?
A dream of space exploration motivated my love of science and engineering. My plan is to be an astronaut; it is the epitome of exploration and what it means to dream. I tend to be drawn to extraordinary situations with a willingness to try new experiences. But that does not mean there aren't times when I am scared or intimidated; you just have to keep moving forward. The most unexpected yet rewarding aspect of this pursuit is that I have had some pretty cool experiences, which allow me to inspire the next generation of women to pursue STEM careers. My stories are an opportunity for others to visualize that anything is possible.
What do you love the most about your job?
It is not just that I enjoy my job; it’s that I love using innovation and creativity to find solutions to complex and advanced problems. My job has taught me that technology can make such a positive impact. We can really revolutionize the way we live and work using innovation.
How would you describe engineering to someone who has never heard about it?
When was the last time you made something with your own two hands? Engineering is as simple as that; designing, inventing, building, and creating, which starts by being curious about things in our everyday lives. I love that a curiosity for science, engineering, and technology can cultivate innovation, facilitate lifelong learning, and stimulate our imaginations.
Finally, what piece of advice would you give to your teenage self?
Dive head-on into challenges. See challenge and taking risks as a means to life-long learning and as valuable opportunities to push your limits. You can learn a lot about yourself by participating in situations outside of your comfort zone, particularly in the science, engineering, and technology fields. Dream big and dare to achieve the impossible.
In this episode we speak to Dr Mark Schenk, an aerospace engineer whose childhood interest in origami led to innovative work developing foldable structures.Read more