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Exploring the unknown

February 27, 2017

Natalie Panek, Schulich School of Engineering class of 2007, has worked with NASA and MDA Space Missions to explore ‘the final frontier.’ Photo by Don Molyneaux.

Jill O’Keefe

For Natalie Panek, the night sky is full of more than an array of stars; it is also full of possibilities. “Space is so vast it makes us want to know more. It draws us in and makes us want to explore,” Panek says.  As an aerospace engineer, she is well prepared to explore and understand those possibilities. “In all of history people have always been drawn to places that are inhospitable for human life,” says Panek. In this sense, space is truly the final frontier.

“I’ve always had this dream of being an astronaut and traveling through space on a long-term mission,” says Panek. Coming out of high school, she believed that a degree from the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering would be a good starting point. Panek soon found out that “Schulich really prepares you and gives you the skills that you need as an engineer.” Today, working at MDA Space Missions, she builds robotic devices that are used in space missions. “I like to say that I get to play with space robots,” she laughs.

Taking a dream to the next level
Schulich  was the perfect place for Panek. “I knew that engineering was the career for me because I wanted a challenge,” she says. “You want to be able to prove to yourself that you can do all the coursework, and live up to that challenge.”

Schulich really prepares you and gives you the skills you need as an engineer.

Pursuing excellence in an intellectually demanding field is an essential part of the atmosphere created by Schulich’s faculty. For example, Panek remembers Dr. Ron Hugo, now associate dean of teaching and learning at Schulich, as “always being one of those professors who encourages you but also wanted to push you to do your best.” Despite the grueling coursework, Panek says, “You always felt good on the other side if you put the work in and made an effort.”

Running on sunshine
At Schulich, Panek learned more about various space technologies through hands-on extracurricular projects like the Solar Car team. She and other engineering students collaborated on designing and constructing a solar-powered vehicle. “Joining the solar car team got me involved in aerospace work,” she says, noting that solar energy is just one example of a technology that is used extensively in space, but now has many uses in everyday life. Panek appreciated Schulich’s abundance of extracurricular projects, which provide students with practical, hands-on learning—easily adapted to projects in their field.

Having female engineering instructors and seeing the paths they have taken toward success in a male-dominated field is very valuable.

Adapting specialized technology to new and innovative uses takes a certain amount of “outside the box” thinking—a perspective that Panek believes women are often able to harness. “I think that women want to be more creative in terms of science and engineering,” she says. “And that’s really valuable when you’re trying to develop advanced technology.”

Strength in numbers
Panek is now a member of the Cybermentor Advisory Council, a web-based program that gives high school-aged girls access to female engineer mentors in a variety of specialized fields. As a mentor in this program Panek is able to provide encouragement and support to young, aspiring female engineers and scientists, something she had little access to before coming to Schulich. She works hard through this and other programs to “provide more opportunities for women and girls to understand what engineering is at a younger age, and to start pursuing  those fields earlier.”

Working for a brighter future
Can engineers change the world? Panek believes they can. She sees a future where women play a significant role in shaping the world. “Women are an amazing resource that I think isn’t fully tapped into yet.” She sees the future as a place where “female role models come from science-based fields, rather than reality TV shows.”

Space is so vast it makes us want to know more. It draws us in and makes us want to explore.

Panek developed more than just engineering skills during her time at the University of Calgary. “Being at Schulich really helped my confidence, especially because I was one of a handful of women in the mechanical engineering program,” she says.  “Having female engineering instructors and seeing the paths they have taken toward success in a male-dominated field is very valuable.” That’s solid advice for any female student aspiring to make a difference in the world through engineering.

Today, Panek works as a Mission Systems Engineer at MDA Space Missions in Toronto. She has also worked on the Next Generation Canada Arm project, building a robotic arm for on-orbit satellite servicing. “I was able to get the job I wanted because I had a degree from a great university,” Panek says. “And I had two previous NASA internships, which I also wouldn’t have gotten if it weren’t for my experiences at the University of Calgary.” For Panek, Schulich set the stage for endless possibilities and brought her dreams to life.

Follow Natalie Panek on Twitter: @nmpanek