Science & Tech

Ascension logo Image: Adam Lam/Provided
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I’M NOT THE WOMAN THEY THNK I AM AT HOME — I’M THE ROCKET WOMAN

For those interested in pursuing a career in space and currently attending a university within Canada, look no further than Ascension 2022, an annual conference held by Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS-Canada). 

This conference, like many others, was designed to welcome and build a community of like-minded individuals. The goal, according to SEDS, was to “bring together students, researchers, and industry professionals.

The guest speakers

Farah Alibay is a French-Canadian Aerospace Engineer. She was born in Montreal and completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. 

Currently, Alibay is a NASA engineer who worked on the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021, and the Ingenuity helicopter, which performed the first powered flight on another planet in April 2021. 

As a teen, she was always fascinated by space. Unfortunately, when she was eight, the movies about aerospace did not feature engineers who looked like her. A long-time role model for hers was Julie Payette, who allowed her to dream and who gave her the inspiration to pursue space.

In her opening speech, Alibay said, “you have to invest in yourself and your dreams. I bet on myself and turned down a good job and decided to do my PhD in a field I was studying. We have to make those kinds of decisions, my advice is to go for it. If you have a dream you have to put your heart into it.”

When asked what a typical day at work looks like, Alibay responded, “the beauty of engineering is that no day looks the same. When [I was operating] a mission on Mars, one of my jobs was to help with testing data. In the Mars yard, I would do drive tests, and be pulling cables around testing the buggy or testing something else. But there’s really no typical day.” 

While reflecting on the Mars 2020 team’s accomplishments, she added, ”sometimes I re-watch the videos and I still get goosebumps. I haven’t had time to process the impact of what we’ve done over the past year. It’s incredibly humbling to be a part of the team I’m on. Everyone is so passionate and skilled. I don’t know if you can find that anywhere else.” 

New frontiers in space tech

Following Alibay’s inspiring opening remarks was the first panel of the conference, titled “New Frontiers in Space Tech.” This panel featured three spectacular guests, including Jason Michaud, CEO of Stardust Technologies, Julie Claveau, an astrophysicist working as program scientist for space astronomy and co-chair of the women in STEM advisory committee at the Canadian Space Agency, and George Zhu, a professor and research chair at York University. 

Panelists spoke passionately about their current work and what they were excited to see develop in the space world within the next ten years. They gave excellent career advice and shared their passions with attendees, creating an energized atmosphere in the virtual space. 

Women in Space

The second panel featured four outstanding women in the space industry, such as Bethany Downer, communications officer for the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescope, Nicole Mortillaro, a senior science reporter at CBC, Hira Nadeem the director & co-founder of Zenith Canada Pathways Foundation, Regina Lee an associate professor of space engineering at York University, and Parashati Patel an astrophysicist and science communicator and STEM education researcher. 

Featured panelists were all at different stages of their careers, which provided a unique perspective on how to navigate the space industry as a woman. Each panelist reflected on their experiences and how they help shape their careers.

For those interested in taking part in Ascension 2023 or looking to get involved with SEDS-Canada visit their website here.