Natalie Panek wants to be an astronaut.
"Going to be," she clarifies with a bright, but firm, smile. "It's funny, people say they always meet lots of eight-year-olds who want to be astronauts, but not 30-year-olds."
A mere nine Canadians have ever flown in space, only two of whom were women, but Panek is well on her way to orbit. At 30, she's already a space robot-building rocket scientist and is currently working on a Mars Rover project set to blast off in 2018.
"I was just always really curious about exploring," she explains backstage at TEDx Toronto, where she was giving a talk about the threat of space junk. "And I had this long-term goal of wanting to be an astronaut, so engineering and tech seemed like a natural path."
Panek grew up in Calgary, in the shadow of the Rockies, and while spending a lot of time camping and hiking, she was also inspired by the Albertan city's status as a high-tech hub.
"People think that the oil industry is only [about] pumping oil out of the ground, but it's really a neat environment for developing cool, innovative technology. And hopefully it will get to a point where they start investing more into alternative energy," she says.
Panek also notes that multiple influences in her life mark her as distinct and lucky. Despite years of effort, women still make up only a fraction of engineers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), and as Maclean's reported last year, university enrollment for engineering is 19 per cent female, and only 12 per cent of the country's 280,000 professional engineers are women.
"I was the only girl in my high school physics class, but I had this amazing female teacher who just pushed us all to challenge our limits," says Panek. "I thought she was so cool. Having her, having someone who will motivate you and push you, is a start. It's about having those role models.
"[It] doesn't have to be women," she adds, "but it has to be champions to encourage you to realize you can be anything you want to be."
"Even if they don't want to go into STEM, which is OK, you're presenting them with choice. Choice is empowerment."
In fact, Panek says it doesn't even have to be real people. Though seemingly slightly embarrassed to admit it, she was also inspired by science fiction enough to turn it into science fact.
"I grew up watching the 'Stargate SG1' series with my mom. So seeing Samantha Carter, who is an astrophysicist, would be this weekly reminder of a woman succeeding in science, even if she was fictional. It was that belief that it's possible," she says.
"I'm a huge advocate for more tech women in the media so that young women can see on a regular basis that these are all the things that they can be — custom car fabricators and chemists and aerospace engineers. And even if they don't want to go into STEM, which is OK, you're presenting them with choice. Choice is empowerment."
After graduating high school, Panek went on to study mechanical engineering. Her class was 10 per cent female. "I was there to learn," she demurs, "that was the end goal for me. It didn't matter what my gender was."
From there, she blasted off to a NASA internship, though she didn't get accepted the first time she applied. Or the second. Or even the next two tries.
"After my fourth rejection I just decided to call to ask why. I didn't think I'd get anyone on the phone, but [the recruiter] gave me the intern position on the spot," she says, still incredulous. "I asked for feedback and he said, 'Look, you were in the top and if you really want to come, come.'
"I didn't want to tell that story for a really long time," she admits. "I was embarrassed because I thought it was a failure. When I told this story to a group of high school girls, they said, 'Natalie, we probably wouldn't even try the second time. You need to be sharing that story.'"
After her stint at NASA doing failure analysis for space electronics, she was hired by Brampton, Ont.-based Canadarm-makers MDA as a mission systems engineer. She's currently helping build the chassis and locomotion system for the European Space Agency's 2018 ExoMars Mission.
"It's still blowing my mind that I'm here working on space robotics. I had this long-term goal of wanting to be an astronaut but I never knew how I was going to get there. It just goes to show that you can't really pick a wrong path. You just have different ones with different experiences."
Panek is also devoted to helping other young women find their paths too. Given the importance that mentorship played in her life, she makes time to help encourage others. She runs a wonderfully named blog called The Panek Room, where she does Saturday science sessions and answers questions, and is also part of a University of Calgary program called Cybermentor, which pairs young women in grades six to 12 across Alberta with professional women in STEM fields.
"I had this long-term goal of wanting to be an astronaut but I never knew how I was going to get there. It just goes to show that you can't really pick a wrong path."
"I grew up thinking, 'I wish I could just email a female astronaut and ask her how she got here,' and this is an opportunity for young women to do just that," she explains.
And, of course, she still has her eye on the prize.
"Canada only has two active astronauts right now and they're both men," she says. "I know that's not a huge deal for a lot of people, but I think astronauts are those cool public figures that really have the power to inspire a generation of young people. It would be great if Canada had another female astronaut."
And, if the Canadian Space Agency is reading, she thinks it would be great if that astronaut's name was Natalie Panek.