FTC 3595: What first sparked your interest in STEM, and when did you decide that you wanted to be a rocket scientist?
Natalie Panek: I think my interest in STEM sparked from spending a lot of time outside. I grew up in the Rockies in Canada and did a lot of camping with my family, and spending so much time outdoors fostered a sense of exploration in me; that in turn sparked an interest in science, tech, and engineering and how STEM can be used to change the world. As for becoming a rocket scientist, that was never really a plan. My lifelong dream is to become an astronaut, and so that’s always been the long-term goal. The path that I’ve gone down to try and get there has led me to where I am today, which is a rocket scientist or an aerospace engineer.
FTC 3595: What motivates you about your job, and how does it make you passionate and excited for work every day?
Natalie Panek: I really love that I get to work on challenging engineering projects, and some of the things that I work on are space robotics. (You can imagine the Canadarm or other robotic arms, or even a Mars rover.) Right now I’m working on a Mars rover program for the European Space Agency, and we’re building the chassis and locomotion system: the base or the frame of the rover, its legs, its wheels, as well as its motors and all its other sensors. Everything that it needs to drive around on the planet, and steer, and do science. So for me, going into work every day is so cool, because I’m actually getting to help design and build hardware that’s going to explore space or go to another planet.
FTC 3595: What’s one of your favorite or one of the coolest projects that you’ve worked on to date? Maybe the rover?
Natalie Panek: Yes, definitely the rover. I feel like that’s the icing on the cake, but I’ve done a lot of cool things. I’ve worked on a lunar dust study; we were trying to see how you could protect hardware that would be on a lunar rover from hazardous lunar dust. Lunar dust can really cause a lot of problems for your rover and your instruments, and I thought that program was really cool. When we did testing on our hardware, we used a lunar simulant, and the variants were named Obi Wan and Kenobi.
FTC 3595: That’s awesome!
Natalie Panek: Yeah! We get fun little quirky things like that in the space industry sometimes. I’ve also worked on projects that really help promote sustainable exploration like trying to repair and recycle dead satellites using robotic arms. There are a lot of satellites orbiting around the Earth helping power our everyday lives, but there isn’t a great infrastructure or plan in place to help take care of satellites or do something with them at the end of their life. We’re trying to figure out a way of using robotics so that you could reuse a broken-down satellite instead of letting it become space junk.
FTC 3595: You’re building history with the work that you’re doing right now. What’s the biggest challenge working in a field with a lot of unknowns?
Natalie Panek: That’s a really great question. It’s kind of a strange question to answer, because the challenge is that everything is unknown. You have to go in every single day being open to failing, being open to things not going according to plan, and then being able to work with a really dynamic team of people to solve those challenges. You have to be creative and see different ways of approaching a problem and solving it, because like you said these are game-changing projects and technologies that sometimes have never been built before. It's hard, but that’s also what makes it really cool and exciting.
FTC 3595: Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years? What would you be doing or what other cool projects would you want to work on?
Natalie Panek: Well, I think I still want to be working in the space industry. That’s always been my passion, and I love what I do. But as I’ve gotten further in my career, I’ve realized the importance of science communication and science policy and inspiring the general public to get excited about the projects that scientists and engineers are working on, as well as figuring out ways to persuade government and different agencies to provide funding for these types of projects. So I would love to delve into more of that side of my work and integrate the science communication, science education, and policy aspects with the engineering work that I do.
FTC 3595: Do you have any advice for girls going into STEM?
Natalie Panek: One of the biggest pieces of advice is to not be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone. I’ve been in a lot of scenarios where I was really afraid to take that first step, whether it was learning how to fly a plane or helping build a solar powered car, and I think that was because I didn’t want to be the person in the room who didn’t know anything. I was afraid that I didn’t have the skills to contribute. But if you can get over that initial fear and vulnerability, you’ll see that usually there is a great team surrounding you to help you overcome those challenges and to help you build your skills. That being said, I also think there are a lot of barriers that are still facing women and minorities in STEM. It is up to everybody to create safer and more welcoming spaces so that people can enter these fields and feel like they have places to move and ways that they can succeed.
FTC 3595: What have been some life-changing experiences, and what have you learned from them?
Natalie Panek: That’s going to be hard to summarize in a one-minute answer, because I feel like I’ve had so many life-changing experiences: my first job where I am still today, working on space robotics, even going to university, taking an engineering degree, and then getting involved in extracurricular activities like helping to build a solar-powered car. I learned that hands-on experiences where you’re getting an opportunity to apply what you've learned in your textbooks and to fail on a daily basis are really powerful experiences, because you’re just learning how to implement something in the real world for the first time or trying to figure out how things work or connect together on the fly.
FTC 3595: You already talked about this a little bit with how all of your time outdoors and exploring influenced you into wanting to do what you do now, but how has it continued to influence you? What impact do all of your explorations have now?
Natalie Panek: It has occurred to me over the past few years just how many parallels there are between exploring here on Earth and exploring in outer space. We’re oftentimes trying to go to remote places or places that no one’s been before in search of the unknown, but I think the stronger parallels are in how we explore and in being responsible for how we explore. One of the things I often talk about is growing up in the outdoors with the “leave no trace” policy. Whenever you're going somewhere new or camping or backpacking, you take out everything that you take in -- you don’t leave anything behind. You try to stay on trail as much as possible, because you don’t want to disturb the land around you, especially in national parks. I think that “leave no trace” policy needs to extend into how we explore space, and also into how we are exploring and studying earth.
That goes back to the satellite servicing project I talked about, because we have all the satellites and this hardware orbiting around the earth that’s doing a lot of good. It’s enabling a lot of technology that we use in our daily lives as well as earth observation satellites, weather monitoring satellites, etc., but if we don’t have a plan in place to take care of what happens to those satellites at the end of their life and we continue to build up the space junk around earth, then we’re not exploring in a sustainable way. So for me, that parallel has really become clear and emphasized in the way that we explore and the need to be more responsible for exploring, both here on earth and in space.
FTC 3595: You’re obviously really passionate about the work that you do when it comes to space, and you love nature as a hobby, but if you were to enter a different field, what would you choose and why?
Natalie Panek: There are so many things that I would want to do and want to be, like maybe a racecar driver or a forest ranger or trail crew in a national park or someone who is an extreme athlete or an explorer who really goes to remote places for a living. Since I probably couldn’t do all of those things, maybe there’s a way I could combine my interests in science communication and somehow do a T.V. show where I could do each of those things as an episode.
FTC 3595: What are some changes that you would like to see in the STEM community?
Natalie Panek: The changes that I’d like to see are promoting more inclusive and safe spaces for people. I think we often talk about needing to inspire the next generation of young people to go into STEM, and while that’s 100% true, I also think that young people are already inspired, they’re already engaged, and they're already working on really cool projects. It’s a matter of keeping young people engaged by creating safe spaces where everyone can feel like they can contribute and are part of a team that’s welcoming.
FTC 3595: There are a lot of girls going into STEM education, but not as many pursuing a STEM career afterwards. Why do you think there’s a big drop when women begin entering the job market?
Natalie Panek: I speak to this point a lot. Universities will report statistics about how many women they have enrolled in undergraduate engineering, but that statistic doesn’t really mean anything unless we look at it with a wider lens i.e. how many women continue on in industry after their degree or once they’re in industry and maybe have a family. Do they stay in that STEM career, and how many women get promoted into director or management positions? These are questions that we definitely need to be talking about and examining at all segments of the pipeline. Are systemic barriers, harassment, work that is not rewarding or fulfilling, or a hostile work environment discouraging people?. I recently heard the phrase ‘the glass ceiling modified to the glass obstacle course, meaning that there are so many things that women and minorities have to navigate in STEM, and it becomes death by a thousand cuts after a while trying to navigate them while getting to a place where you feel like you have succeeded. So all those things are something that we all need to be working on in STEM to change.
FTC 3595: Why do you think it’s important for girls to learn science?
Natalie Panek: I think it’s important for everyone to learn science, because science is present in almost everything that we do. I’m a huge proponent for ensuring that everyone is technology-savvy, not technology-dependent. I think that we’re entering a very interesting time where we’re starting to border on people blindly using technology and devices without taking the time to understand how they work or what the implications of their usage are. We need to build science-literate communities, taking the time to question everything and think intelligently about the world that we live in.
FTC 3595: Is there anything else that we haven’t asked you or you haven’t talked about yet that you would like to touch on, either about your experiences or things that you would like to say to a community of high school roboticists?
Natalie Panek: I would say that as you are navigating your careers, the world of robotics, everything else related to STEM, and looking for role models and mentors, consider and realize that you girls are also role models and mentors to someone younger than you. I guarantee there’s someone younger than you who is also wishing that they could have someone to ask questions and turn to in order to find their way. So as much as you’re excited to learn from others, be willing to teach others as well.
Want to learn more about Natalie Panek? She’s given numerous TEDx Talks, keynotes, etc.
Here are some of our favorites:
Space: Our Invisible Landfill: https://youtu.be/XM-QKG70a5s
Breaking Boundaries on Earth and Beyond: https://youtu.be/0fG6BdpgYR0
Natalie Panek also has a website where you can learn more about her and the projects that she has worked on: https://thepanekroom.com
This blog was written by FTC 3595 Schrodinger's Hat. If you are interested in blogging for FIRST Ladies, click here to sign up on the schedule.