PHOTO COURTESY OF PAM LAU

Their Story is a recurring column that highlights the stories of successful scientists and science graduates in the Toronto area, in the hopes of showing students the diverse paths that paragons of success may take. 

“Dare to achieve the impossible. Just put yourself out there and see what happens,” said Natalie Panek, who lives by these words.

When Panek first applied to NASA for an internship at the Goddard Space Flight Center, she was rejected. So she applied again. She was rejected again. In total, Panek was rejected by NASA four times. However, true to her philosophy, Panek’s failure didn’t deter her.

“I am a big believer in that you only live once so you might as well do it right, and I don’t want any regrets. And, for me, not applying again would have been a big regret. I mean the worst that can happen is they say no and the best that can happen is I end up with the internship position of my dreams,” Panek explained.

After her fourth rejection, Panek called NASA to receive feedback on her application and over the course of her conversation, she was offered the internship she wanted.

As she shared this story, Panek emphasized the importance of talking about failure. “I think it is really important that we share these stories of failure and perseverance because life isn’t always easy, and people have many challenges and obstacles to overcome.”

Today, Panek is one of the most successful and powerful Canadian women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). She works at MDA Corporation as a rocket scientist, has driven a solar-powered car across North America and has contributed to the European Space Agency’s 2018 ExoMars Project. Her longterm aim is to become an astronaut. Despite her success, however, Panek relates strongly to students who are uncertain about the path that they should take.

“I didn’t know what to study in university and I didn’t really know what engineering was.” Speaking from her experience, Panek strongly advises students today to take advantage of the opportunities available to learn more about their chosen fields. “If there is someone that inspires you or that you find really interesting, don’t be afraid to email them or ask them if you could take them for a cup of coffee. The worst thing they can say is no and the best thing is you get to have a great conversation with someone for an hour who might give you a new perspective on your education or your career and what your passions are,” she stated.

In an effort to help young women like herself aspiring to pursue STEM fields, Panek maintains a website called The Panek Room, where she discusses her career path and fields questions from students. As she put it, “I kind of had this eureka moment that if [I created] a space where young women could reach out to me, [then] I could help answer some of their questions I found so difficult to find on my own 10 years ago.”

Panek’s journey to becoming a rocket scientist began early in her childhood. She recalls “growing up in Alberta, in the outdoors and spending so much time camping and star gazing. [I had a] love of watching sci-fi with my mom and seeing these amazing characters exploring other worlds on a weekly basis through TV, and I think that was a perfect recipe for this longterm dream of space travel.”

Panek advised students to be comfortable with taking a unique path off the beaten track: “As you go through your studies… your goals might shift, your passions might shift…  because you are learning about yourself and you are pushing your limits and your capabilities. You can’t really pick a wrong path, just different paths that will give you different stories to tell along the way with different experiences and lessons learned.”

She continued, “I think people often don’t realize that I am still just trying to figure things out.  Even though I have this long term goal to be an astronaut, I don’t know how I am going to get there. I have never known. It is kind of been an open ended book and you just go down a path and hope it works out.”

Panek firmly stated that she has absolutely no regrets: “I think, whatever you choose to do, it builds character, builds resilience, and teaches you something in some way, and that all adds up to make you who you are.”

As a mechanical engineering student, Panek had the opportunity to help build and drive a solar-powered car across North America. The competition gave her useful experience in aerospace engineering and allowed her to “participate in [a] real world project working with a team, figuring out how to make a product and put it out in a real world.” Panek credits her most valuable experiences as being those that involve “hands-on learning, building, tinkering, getting your hands dirty, [and] figuring out how things break to understand how they work.”

Panek emphasized the importance of doing what you love and finding balance. For her, that means earning a pilot’s license, travelling the world, and playing competitive ultimate frisbee. “It is hard finding time to fit in your passions outside of work but I feel that is the number one way to avoid getting burnt out. Make sure you make time for what makes you really happy,” said Panek.

The Canadian Space Agency recently announced a recruitment campaign for astronauts and Panek has entered the application pool — looks like Panek’s career is just getting ready for lift off.

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