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TEDxToronto Women: Natalie Panek, Aerospace Engineer

In anticipation for the TEDxToronto 2015 Conference (October 22nd), each day this week Shedoesthecity will post top-notch career and life advice from some of the powerhouse women that will be speaking at the conference this year. Innovative, gutsy, groundbreaking: a lot can be learned from these phenomenal women.

For this installment, we spoke to Natalie Panek, aerospace engineer, adventurer, and advocate for women in technology. Panek works on the next generation of Canadian space robotics at MDA’s Robotics and Automation division. Before working at, Panek drove a solar-powered car across North America, acquired a private pilot’s license, and interned at both NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA’s Ames Research Center. She is the 2013 recipient of the University of Calgary Graduate of the Last Decade Award, one of the Women’s Executive Network 2014 Top 100 Most Powerful Women, and one of Forbes 30 under 30.

SDTC: What life lesson that you learned as a young adult do you often refer to?

NP: Work outside of comfort zones as much as possible and participate in hands-on projects that provide opportunities for building, making, tinkering, experimenting etc. Building a solar-powered car, space robotics and learning how to fly were all life-changing experiences because I took a chance.

What have you recently learned about yourself?

That I ought to embrace patience more in my life. I try to live each day embracing every moment, while tackling audacious goals. Success and change take time; and that is okay.

What motivates you?

My motivation lies in the knowledge that increasing female participation in the workforce will generate growth and lead to innovation. We need businesses to see the positive impact that diversity can have on their organizations.

When/where do you do your best thinking?

I definitely do my best thinking outdoors. Whether I am standing cliff side looking out into the depths of the ocean with massive swells crashing at my feet or emerging from a cave on the other side of the world, surfacing into the darkest sky imaginable with so many stars that even the constellations are hard to perceive, I feel free. That is when my mind is clear.

Do you remember the moment you recognized that you were on the right path?

The moment I recognized I was on the right path was watching the Perseid meteor shower on a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay working on a mission to Mars at NASA Ames Research Center.

What change do you hope to bring to the world?

Inspiring others to embrace curiosity. I think it is extremely important as we grow to maintain child-like wonder; to look at the world with wide eyes with so many amazing opportunities for lifelong learning. This is how we are going to propel innovation and positive change in our communities.

What are you most proud of?

I am proud of persevering to land a coveted internship position at NASA. I applied for the program four times and was turned down all four times. After the last rejection I decided to call the Chief of the Office of Higher Education and was offered an internship on the spot. Never underestimate the power of perseverance!

What’s your best advice for individuals who are feeling uncertain of their next step? 

Try not to think of next steps or decisions as right or wrong. Think of them as different paths with a range of learning opportunities and experiences that will teach you about your passions, capabilities, and dreams.

Professionally speaking, what impresses you? What qualities in a colleague or boss do you admire most?

The qualities I admire most are flexibility and optimism. Optimism is often the glue that holds teams together, especially when things go wrong (they typically do when building stuff for space!).

What are you striving for right now?

You could say I am striving for the stars – travelling to space and exploring beyond the boundaries of Earth. The beauty of exploration is a greater sense of purpose and mindfulness via roads less travelled; being moved in ways you do not expect leaves you with a sense of incomparable richness.

TEDxToronto is Canada’s largest TEDx event, a platform for exceptional ideas, and a catalyst for profound change.

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