Meet Canada’s Newest Astronaut: 28-Year-Old Jennifer Sidey

Calgary’s Jennifer Sidey talks to FLARE about making the leap from mechanical engineering to outer space as one of Canada’s newest astronauts

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Official photo of Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Jennifer Sidey.

(Photo: Canadian Space Agency)

Name: Dr. Jennifer Sidey

Age: 28

Education: Honours Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from McGill University (2011) and Ph.D in engineering with a focus on combustion from the University of Cambridge (2015)

Social handles: @astro_jenni on Instagram and @Astro_Jenni on Twitter.

Growing up, you say Canada’s first female astronaut Roberta Bondar inspired you to go into STEM. What made you decide to apply to the Canadian Space Agency’s program now?

I was in that really key age range, between four and six years old or so, when I first heard about Roberta Bondar and her flight. She was the first female astronaut in Canada, which was obviously groundbreaking, but she was also the first role model I saw in a position like that. I remember it being something that everyone was so excited about, and I really joined in with that.

Since then, I’ve been working as an engineer and scientist, and when the Canadian Space Agency first put its call out, it was just too unreal an opportunity to look away from. It incorporates everything that I love—the exploration, the research, speaking to people around the world and the dedication required for the job—but really, it’s all of those things on a next level.

Why does space exploration matter to you?

It matters to me because it really brings the world together. Everyone can really identify with it and become excited by it.

Jennifer Sidey participates in the second series of aptitude tests during the astronaut selection process.

Sidey participates in the second series of aptitude tests during the astronaut selection process. (Photo: Canadian Space Agency)

You’re relocating to Texas to start the two-year Astronaut Candidate Training Program. There will be simulated spacewalks and robotics lessons. What are you most excited for? 

We will learn a lot in the training program, but the thing I’m probably most excited for initially is meeting the other astronaut candidates. That’s going to be pretty special. Joshua [Kutryk] and I are going into it as the two Canadians in a class with new NASA recruits, and I’ve heard they have a wealth of diverse backgrounds. It’s going to be pretty exciting for both of us to get to know them.

Will you receive any different training as a female astronaut? 

No, everyone is pretty much training in the same way for the same types of missions. I don’t think it’s gender-specific.

Jennifer Sidey takes part in the third series of tests during the astronaut selection process.

Sidey takes part in the third series of tests during the astronaut selection process. (Photo: Canadian Space Agency)

If you could explore anywhere in space, you told the Canadian Space Agency you’d like to visit Europa, an icy moon orbiting Jupiter. Why?

Europa is just fascinating. It’s this ice-covered moon, and if we’re thinking about looking for liquid there, then we have chances of finding life. So it’s always been interesting to me, and for all scientists really. I was fascinated by it when I was younger because I did a project on it in elementary school.

Let’s say you actually met an extraterrestrial being: what’s the first thing you would say?

It depends on if they found me, or I found them! I hadn’t really thought of that yet. If they found me, I’d say, “Welcome,” and if I found them, I’d just try and say, “Hello.”

Eyes on the prize: another shot of Sidey during the astronaut aptitude tests.

Eyes on the prize: Sidey participates in another round of astronaut aptitude tests. (Photo: Canadian Space Agency)

Looking back on your career, what would you describe as your first big break?

My acceptance into university, and that would be McGill. That was really what started me on this journey to become an engineer and a scientist. (While there, Sidey conducted research on flames and combustion in microgravity with the Canadian Space Agency and the National Research Council Flight Research Laboratory.)

Last year, you were awarded the Young Woman Engineer of the Year trophy for your work in low emission combustion devices. Could you explain your work to us?

I’m a combustion scientist—and that means that I study fire. Part of my job involves me trying to figure out how we can use fire in engines and emit fewer pollutants. So if we’re going to keep using combustion and fire to meet our energy and transport needs, how do we do it in a way that’s safe and sustainable? Should we still be using combustion? Those are the kinds of questions that I ask and try to solve.

You’ve also co-founded the Cambridge chapter of Robogals, a student-run international organization that empowers young women to study STEM. Why do you think it’s important for more young women to get involved?

Since it’s still such a male-dominated field, it’s very important. The whole field is based on creative problem-solving and trying to come up with innovative solutions. And if we’re going to do something like that, we need a variety of mindsets tackling these problems. It’s also a field that benefits everyone, so we can’t have any one group of people underrepresented.

What has your experience been like studying and working within a male-dominated field?

There are always challenges, but in my experience, the most important and heartening thing for me has been to find allies and mentors. And really they are everywhere—and willing to help—you just have to seek them out.

Have you personally experienced any difficulties or barriers? 

Of course, there are difficulties that you encounter. The most important thing I’ve tried to do is to not be disheartened by them and to speak to allies and really persist.

When you are having a tough day, how do you persist? 

Well, I guess it’s all about keeping focus. Of course there are days that are more difficult than others, but overall I remember why I’m doing my job and why it’s important to me. Being passionate about my work certainly helps, and remembering that is key.

What part of your work do you love most? 

My favourite bit about my job just recently was when I was at the University of Cambridge interacting with the students [Sidey was a lecturer]. I had a diverse range of students who were all absolutely exceptional and just excited to learn, and that made my job really fun and easy.

Who or what keeps you motivated? 

Well, I’m always really motivated by the tagline of my profession: engineering is about improving people’s lives with science. And as long as I remember that I’m doing my job to eventually make an impact and improve people’s lives, the motivation kind of takes care of itself.

What’s the worst piece of career advice you’ve ever been given? 

The worst piece of advice that you could receive isn’t necessarily something specific, but I guess it would be something that sets your expectations a bit too low. I always think that when you’re going for something there should be times when you fail, because if you’re not failing, you’re not reaching high enough. And I’ve failed countless times in my career. It’s just part of the job, but you have to get better and keep improving. “Playing it safe” is bad advice that I would never give anyone.

How do you unwind each day after work?

I spend time with people that make me happy, like my partner, Chris, and my friends and family.

If you do go to space, have you and Chris worked out how you’ll manage a really long distance relationship? 

Yeah, we’re fortunate in that this isn’t a new problem for people in the Canadian Space Agency and people in NASA. Luckily, we have this wealth of experience to draw on, and I feel like a lot of people are willing to help.  So I guess the answer is: we’re not going to do it alone.

On Instagram, you recently gave a special shout out to your rugby team. What are some other things you do in your spare time?

I do spend a lot of time playing rugby—though not as much anymore—and a lot of time at the gym. I’m really into Olympic lifting and power lifting at the moment, which I got into for rugby as specific training to improve my game.

There’s a real chance you’ll be up in space one day looking out a small window back on earth. Where would you look first? 

I would absolutely look to Canada first. That’s going to be a pretty special moment seeing Canada for the first time from space.

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