Posted March 22nd, 2016 by Jamie Hunter

Natalie Panek: aspiring astronaut and champion for women in STEM

  • Alumna Natalie Panek (AeroE MASc 0T9), a revered “STEM rock star,” believes one of our greatest responsibilities is empowering the next generation. (Photo: Pam Lau)

Many of our alumni volunteer with U of T Engineering. In celebration of National Engineering Month, we turn the spotlight on those that go the extra mile by volunteering in the greater community. From climbing one of the Seven Summits for charity to surgical education and research in Africa, our alumni are passionate about giving back. This story is the first of a five-part series.

While rocket scientist Natalie Panek (AeroE MASc 0T9) is chasing her dream of becoming an astronaut, she wants to encourage as many women as possible to follow along the way.

Currently working in MDA’s Robotics and Automation division, Panek has become a regular name in headlines and a familiar face at high-profile speaking events across the country. She volunteers a great deal of her time and expertise to encourage women to pursue challenging careers in typically male-dominated fields, and is as celebrated for these efforts as she is for her contributions to Canadian space exploration.

“Volunteer work is important to me because one of our greatest responsibilities is empowering the next generation to embrace curiosity and work on things we know are hard,” Panek said. “That is how we are going to build resilient and innovative communities that can solve the most pressing problems of our time. Giving just a little of my time and sharing my stories can inspire young people to embrace challenge.”

She created a blog, thepanekroom.com, as a platform to educate and encourage young girls to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Panek publishes bite-sized science articles to the site called Saturday Science Sessions and promotes various opportunities and resources for women in STEM.

She also volunteers as a mentor and adviser for Cybermentor, the University of Calgary’s online mentoring program for girls in Grades 6 to 12. Panek, who completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary, said that the experience has been nothing short of remarkable, especially when previous mentees let her know that they have, thanks in part to her, pursued studies in science and engineering.

“It is rewarding to hear about young women succeeding in, and passionate about, STEM careers,” she said. “It also still amazes me how many fathers contact me through my blog just to say thanks for what I am doing and that it is helping them to inspire and encourage their daughters to dream big. That’s pretty cool!”

Panek lists her high school physics teacher, Maryse Carmichael — the first female commander of the Canadian Snowbirds — and even the fictional character Samantha Carter from the TV series Stargate SG-1 as some of her inspirations to pursue a career in STEM.

“They were all bold, confident, and pursued their passions,” she said. “I admired those traits.”

Follow Panek’s research and volunteer work on Twitter at @nmpanek.

Looking to volunteer at U of T Engineering? There are many rewarding student-focused, Faculty-level and University-wide volunteer opportunities for alumni. Make a connection, share your experiences and inspire the next generation of engineers today.