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Don’t Panic: Failure is the key to reinvention by Dana Marie Krook

first mentor, introduced her to the field of engineering and encouraged her to explore it. “To be honest, I didn’t even know what engineering was when I first started university, except that I knew it would provide good opportunities and would be a challenging career choice,” she says. “So I went down that road knowing many astronauts are also engineers.”

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atalie Panek has always had the same dream: travel to space. “You hear lots of kids say they want to be astronauts, but not many people in their teens and twenties. I think it caught my peers off-guard,” she says. “But they always knew me as the girl who wanted to be an astronaut—or is GOING to be an astronaut, as I say.” The sky’s the limit, right? Well, only if you embrace failure. Natalie Panek is an Engineer at MDA’s Robotics and Automation division, working on Canadian space robotics and other space exploration programs. As a rocket scientist, explorer and champion for women in engineering, she is not only on a mission to see Earth from above, but also to change the overall perspective of what is achievable, regardless of gender, for those of us on Earth. Natalie grew up adventurous. She loved the outdoors and craved hiking and camping trips. “I think that combined with watching science fiction with my mom, inspired this desire to travel to space and become an astronaut.” It was during the last year of high school when Natalie’s dream really started to take shape. A physics teacher, Natalie’s

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For Natalie, it was all about the opportunity to do hands-on work, to tinker, to work through problems and, inevitably, to make mistakes. “A lot of times in education, we don’t put enough focus on experimenting, playing, failing. It’s always hit the books, study hard, pass your exams,” Natalie says. While at university, Natalie gave herself plenty of opportunity to complement her theory learning with real life experience. “There’s so much that can be learned by putting yourself in unfamiliar and uncomfortable positions; failing, having to persevere, and then learning about yourself and others through that failure.” Natalie joined the University of Calgary’s Solar Powered Car team, where she got to build and race a solar powered vehicle across North America, officially making her the first female driver at the U of C to do so. She also took on a 16-month internship between her third and fourth years, immersing herself in the real world of her industry. To top it off, Natalie also earned her pilot’s license. Her intentions with all of this were clear: pull together the pieces necessary to achieve her dream of being in space. While Natalie never set out to reinvent her ultimate goal—this was pretty set in stone and still is—reinvention happened

naturally for both herself and her methods for achieving her space dream.“Reinvention is a by-product of failure,” Natalie says. “So many times you have in your mind what you want to do, but you have to adapt and reinvent yourself in order to find success.” One of these instances was with a coveted NASA scholarship. Only one Canadian would be selected. “I applied four times and was rejected all four times,” she says, recounting the continual failure. “It came down to adapting my plan.” Instead of going the usual route of online application, which had yielded four rejections, Natalie picked up the phone and talked her way into the scholarship. Her failure led to a crucial lesson: you don’t have to change your goal when barriers arise; you just have to change the way you climb. “Dream big. Imagine yourself doing anything and figure out how to get there,” she says. “Put yourself in situations where you’re challenged and always learning.” A big part of that learning also comes from involvement in mentoring, hearing and sharing those failures and successes. Natalie took part in the WXN’s Top 100 mentorship program, which paired her with Lieutenant Colonel Maryse Carmichael, Pilot and first female Commanding Officer of the Canadian Snowbirds. “I was most affected by the opportunity to hear her lessons learned in a similar industry that was male-dominated and how she overcame her struggles,” says Natalie. The two are still in contact now, five years later. The experience was a spark. Afterward, Natalie realized she was in a position to also be a mentor herself. “I think a rewarding aspect of mentorship is that it’s bidirectional.You can learn in either direction

JANUARY 2015 | THE OPINION


The Opinion - January 2015