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Ever Wonder What a Rocket Scientist's Job Is Really Like?

In our new 9-5 series, we asked our favourite boss babes what a day in the office entails. This week, rocket scientist Natalie Panek gives us a glimpse into her grind (she's working on the Mars Rover!)

Natalie Panek

Natalie Panek, rocket scientist, MDA Corporation, Brampton, Ont. (Photo: Natalie Panek)

Age: 30

Length of time in current gig: Six years

Education: Bachelor of science in mechanical engineering, University of Calgary; master of science in aerospace engineering, University of Toronto

Typical hours: 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.

When do you wake up? 5 a.m.

What kind of preparation do you do before you get to work, so you’re on the ball when you arrive? My only priority is eating a solid breakfast—usually a big bowl of cereal with fruit.

What do you typically wear to work? Jeans and a shirt. Sometimes I add a little punch with bold flats and colourful earrings.

What’s the workplace vibe like? It’s a really dynamic place. I work at MDA’s robotics and automation division with a dream of going to space. Right now I’m part of a team working on the European Space Agency’s 2018 Mars Rover. Its main mission is to search for life on Mars. We’re building the part of the Rover that will allow it to drive, steer and deploy [from the spacecraft].

What’s the first thing you do when you get to work? I go early to minimize my time on the highway. When I arrive, around 6:15 a.m., I ensure all applications and documents are closed on my computer. I like to start with a clean desktop.

For this phase of the project I’m mostly at my desk. Before you launch a Rover to another planet, you have to verify you’ve designed it correctly and that it meets your customer’s needs so we put it through a rigorous test program to make sure it will survive the launch, the cruise phase to Mars and its entire life on Mars’ surface. I’m coming up with all the testing we’re going to perform on our hardware.

What’s the best part of your day? Working on challenging problems with the flexibility to brainstorm creative solutions. A good example is designing the wheel for the Rover which is challenging. It has to survive the severe temperatures and the dust on Mars as well as driving over different sized rocks on the surface. We also build hardware that actually goes to space, which is totally cool.

 What’s the worst part of your day? Since we work on advanced technology, it’s not always easy to find solutions and we don’t always get immediate decisions. Sometimes that’s frustrating.

What are the biggest challenges in your job? There are a lot of unknownsYou have to realize it’s okay not to know all of the answers all the time.

Who do you admire most in your profession and why? Maryse Carmichael, the first female commander and pilot of the Canadian Snowbirds. She emphasized the power of surrounding yourself with people who can teach you things you don’t know.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? To embrace challenge and experiences outside your comfort zone. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty and experiment, invent, tinker and build.

If someone else aspired to do your job, what qualities would they need? Flexibility and optimism. In space no matter what you do something will go wrong, so optimism holds things together in those trying moments and flexibility helps you adapt and come up with a creative answer.

What do you to unwind after work? I jump rope every day and on the days I don’t, I play competitive ultimate frisbee. I also love a good book.

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