Natalie Panek, BSc(Eng)’07
Aerospace engineer, explorer, and champion for women in STEM.
Natalie’s love of space and aviation led her to obtain a private pilot’s license, to help design and subsequently drive a solar-powered car across North America, and to currently building space robotics. She has participated in internships at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center and at NASA’s Ames Research center, as well as contributed to a number of high profile space projects including MDA’s satellite servicing initiative and ESA’s 2020 ExoMars rover program in her role in Mission Systems at MDA.
Practical experiences of building and making things in a team-based environment where failure is a real possibility provide some of the best opportunities for learning.
What is your favourite memory from your time at UCalgary?
My favorite memory from my time at UCalgary is actually the overall experience of working towards my engineering degree. I loved the coursework and opportunities to learn interesting material day-to-day, as well as collaborating with and relying on my peers to maximize the experience. We struggled together and we succeeded together on many occasions! Crossing the finish line at the U of C after our inaugural entry into the North American Solar Challenge and seeing how many Calgarians came out to cheer for us on campus was another huge highlight.
What was your favourite campus hang-out spot?
My favorite campus hang-out spot was the ICT building. It was a relatively new space at the time and I spent many hours studying or completing assignments, labs, and tutorials at the tables there. I loved how open and bright the space felt.
What advice would you give your student self, knowing what you do now?
Knowing what I do now, I would encourage myself to get involved in more hands-on projects. There is only so much you can learn from books! Practical experiences of building and making things in a team-based environment where failure is a real possibility provide some of the best opportunities for learning.
How did your engineering degree help you get to where you are today?
My mechanical engineering degree at UCalgary was a launch pad for everything I have pursued since. I learned the value of hands-on experience through the solar powered car team. An internship during my degree provided the means to get a pilots license. UCalgary was the foundation for my masters degree in aerospace engineering, subsequent internships at NASA, and nearly a decade building robotics for space exploration. I think most importantly though was the reminder from a few good friends as we navigated our engineering degrees that work life balance is critical. Working to balance school and extracurricular activities during university has helped maintain by passion for the outdoors, outreach, as well as my career in aerospace engineering today.
How has your career path evolved and changed since graduation?
My target career of becoming an astronaut has been constant throughout my life. That being said, the path to this goal has never been clear! I never dreamed I would be working at a space robotics company, where my work focuses on building robots to repair broken satellites in space and building part of a Mars rover. Despite my successes, my dream of space travel took an interesting turn last year after applying for the Canadian Space Agency's 2016/2017 astronaut recruitment campaign. I was down-selected into the top 100 applicants but shortly thereafter found out I had been disqualified because of a streak of white hair I have (and have had since I was a kid). The skin condition that causes the white hair can be linked to autoimmune diseases. The elimination was heartbreaking because it felt so out of my control. Now I am trying to enjoy not knowing what comes next, as well as continuing to use my platform to help young people navigate the aerospace industry and careers in STEM!