Women in Aviation: Shooting for the stars

September 08, 2014
Written by Anna Pangazzi
When I broke into the aviation fraternity in the 1980s, my generation of female aviators was considered quite a novelty. It was an exciting field, full of adventures, and we did not mind being “one of the boys.” Years later, however, many of my female colleagues are finding it hard to understand why more women did not follow in our footsteps. One explanation may be the lack of visible role models youngsters had and although we tried to make a difference, it was difficult to make a significant impact.

Natalie-Panek
 
Engineering is all about innovation; allowing curiosity to run its course in our daily lives. Photo: MDA

 
 
Fortunately, there’s now a new breed of young women entering the field who are changing the landscape in many exciting ways. Natalie Panek, for example, the 2013 Northern Lights Rising Star Award recipient, is an aspiring astronaut working for MDA Corporation in B.C. The 29-year-old blogs, tweets, hosts a website called the Panekroom.com and uses every opportunity to speak and engage young women about aviation and aerospace.

Panek holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Masters of Applied Science in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies. She has driven a solar-powered car across North America, has done two internships at NASA, completed her pilot’s licence and now works on robotic kinematics. Beyond her day job, Natalie is an ambassador for young women in engineering and aims to inspire the next generation “to dive head-on into the challenge!”

Why did you choose a career in aerospace?
I have always been driven by a sense of adventure, the ability to push limits, and learning. Combine these with a desire to travel to space and a career in aerospace is a natural fit. Space travel is the ultimate for me. Aerospace engineering offers amazing learning opportunities with so much involvement in science and technology.

Did you have any role models and/or mentors?
Unfortunately, in my early school years, I really did not have many mentors (aside from my family).  As I progressed through school, I learned to take advantage of opportunities for mentorship, especially with the female mentors I connected with in university – female professors, my instructor for my pilot’s license, or even a mentorship program through the Women’s Executive Network (WXN), where I was mentored by Maryse Carmichael.

What kind of challenges have you had to deal with and how have you overcome them?
The biggest obstacle I have had to overcome is leaving behind my family and the city that I love (Calgary) to pursue a dream of travelling to space. I can honestly say that I have had equal opportunity throughout my career in engineering. While there are certainly challenges in any industry, I think women need to focus more on why we love what we do – flying, working with robots, designing spacecraft – rather than the challenges.

Have you ever felt overwhelmed? Do you have certain strategies to help you affect change?
Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the number of incredible youth accomplishing amazing feats to really revolutionize the world. I often feel like I am not making enough of an impact. At times like these, you just have to take a step back and consider a wider perspective. Sometimes inspiring just one young woman to consider an engineering career is enough. Those moments when a father tells you that he visits your blog with his daughter to get ideas for science experiments are absolutely unreal.

How do you describe your professional style?
My professional style is a combination of determination, efficiency, ease, and rebelliousness (to create positive change!). I love the opportunity to get my hands on a very diverse cross-section of Canadian space initiatives. I try to enjoy each day and put in my best work for the time I am in the office. But for me, travel, adventure, and exploration are just as important as my day-to-day job. Making time for these has to be priority in my life – and I think being an engineer teaches you very well how to manage priorities. While I love what I do, I don’t think, later when looking back on my life, I’ll wish I spent more time on the computer; but pursuing adventure, I’ll always want more of that!


Anna
 
   
Anna Pangrazzi is an accomplished aviator and Toronto-based writer.

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