March 13, 2003
As a child, did you always have “stars in your eyes” about working in space?
Growing up in Toronto, my mother used to take me to the Ontario Science Centre and the Royal Ontario Museum and I think that might have planted the seeds. For some reason, the unit on space was the part of science class I always found most interesting at school. A lot of kids dream of being ballerinas or firefighters and usually, they grow out of their childhood ambitions or reality sets in and they change their paths as they get older. I never wavered from wanting to pursue my interests. It was just something visceral and ingrained in me.
I still remember a trip we took to the Kennedy Space Centre during March break when I was in grade six. Because my mother was a teacher, she was able to access the educator’s resource section and collect a whole bunch of materials from NASA. I was thrilled to have such cool photos of astronauts and official stationery with the NASA logo on it!Did you ever dream ending up in the career you have now?
Well, I never said, “I’m going to become a flight controller one day” mainly because I had no idea this was open to me. This career has only existed for the seven years that the arm has been on orbit (Canadarm2 was delivered to the International Space Station in April 2001). We’ve actually had just as few Canadian flight controllers as we’ve had Canadian astronauts. Getting here was about having a keen interest in the field, developing the right educational background and a little about being in the right place at the right time.So, how does a kid from Toronto grow up to become an expert on a $1.4-billion piece of space technology?
I’ve always been interested, not only in space travel, but in the science of aircraft and flight in general. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, but I also understood that opportunities in the field were fairly limited in Canada. Although I was tempted by Ryerson, Carlton and the University of Toronto, which all offer an aerospace engineering undergraduate degree, I chose the University of Calgary to get a broad-based education in mechanical engineering. My thinking was that if I was still interested in aerospace, I could always build on that or get a job in that field with a mechanical degree – whereas if I got an aerospace degree, I might be limiting myself a little.That sounds like fairly logical thinking.
After I did my undergraduate degree, I found I was still very interested in learning more about orbital mechanics and aircraft design and theory of flight and that kind of thing. That’s why I chose to do my Masters in aerospace engineering at McGill University. One of the requirements of the degree was to do an internship with an aerospace company and I ended up getting my internship with the Canadian Space Agency.
While working in Advanced Materials and Thermal group there, I did some research on atomic oxygen degradation of satellites for a gentleman who transitioned over to supporting the International Space Station project. At the time, they had just launched Canadarm2, so he recommended that I apply when they were looking at hiring more flight controllers. So although I had the right attitude, the right interest and the right education – a lot really can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time.Were you always a strong student in math and science?
Believe it or not, what I do does not come naturally to me. In school, those little aptitude tests that identify your strengths indicated I was very much a verbal person skilled in creative writing and languages. While I really enjoyed and did well in science, math was a struggle. I had a heck of a time getting through my math class in graduate school. I was one of these kids for whom everything came easy in high school – and then I arrived at university. What a shock! I walked in with the third-highest average at my high school and then failed dynamics in my first year of engineering. It was mind boggling to have to go back and repeat a class.That must have been a rude awakening for you!
The truth was I had not really learned how to study. That’s something we talk about in engineering – it’s not so much what you learned in school. The fact that you have the degree shows that you’re capable of learning. But you need the proper problem-solving skills to survive. You need to be capable of going out, seeking the knowledge you need and figuring things out. In my case, I hadn’t learned how to study and so I needed that rude awakening.
It’s funny, but I later spent some time teaching at the University of Calgary – and what class did they assign me to teach? The same one I had failed as an undergraduate student! Evidently, the universe believed I needed to re-learn it one more time.What still excites you about going to work every day?
I also enjoy the fact that although I’m involved in a huge government project, I am able to work very independently. After five or six years, I am now attending program-level meetings and when I make a statement, I’m speaking on behalf of all my peers in my group and they trust me to do that. If I’m struggling with a problem, it’s up to me to seek out support from other people, but otherwise, I’m left to use my judgment, my skills and my experience to make decisions and bring together entire robotics portions of the shuttle mission. I like that I have the ability to work independently and take on that level of responsibility.What would you say is a personal career achievement you are most proud of?
It’s going to be happening soon, I hope. We have three levels of robotics flight controllers; two levels are what we call in the back room, the more technical support positions, and the third level is in the front room – the person who makes the final decision and recommendation to the flight director who is the person ultimately responsible for the safety of the crew and success of the mission. I have been slowly working my way through these certification levels and I am now only a few weeks away from achieving the highest certification level. It is a great deal of responsibility. It means you are the one making the final decisions; you are responsible for the well-being of the crew as well as protecting a multi-billion dollar piece of equipment. When you’re in that room, that’s it – those doors are closed and no one questions what you say. To have achieved that and to know that your group places their full trust in you – that means a lot.What is the percentage of women working in your area?
It’s fairly high, perhaps around 50 per cent. Keep in mind that we have a very strong affirmative action policy as I am a government civil servant, so that number may be a bit misleading. I’ve read that in the aerospace industry, it’s more like 11 per cent women. Here at NASA, in the group in my area, I would say that the number of women working here is about half. That said, at the highest level there are fewer women compared to the number working in more entry level positions. I think that could be due to the difficulty in finding balance between work and family life. We’ve had some incredibly strong women in our group who have done excellent work and easily achieved the technical certifications, qualifications and advanced onward, but then chose to transition out of flight control into positions that are less time demanding.
Let’s face it – it’s very difficult to have a young family and find out, okay for the next two weeks, I’m going to be working 9:30 pm to 6:30 am. The shuttle changes schedule, there are technical problems, or the mission is proceeding over the holidays. It’s very difficult to plan your life far in advance or to even have hobbies that require a long-term commitment. It’s something we struggle with and one of the sacrifices that must be made for the sake of this job.Do you have any aspirations to travel into space yourself?
That would be wonderful! I certainly hope that they might hire astronauts in the near future, but it’s been 14 years since the Canadian Space Agency has hired new astronauts. They only accept applicants from a very narrow age range and they recently raised their height limit – so I’m now right on the cusp. But I’m working out and stretching so that when the time comes, I’ll be ready (laughs).
Certainly, it’s a dream of mine, but honestly – if I never get to do it, what I do now is the next closest thing. I work to train the astronauts when I’m involved in these missions, talking with them while they’re up there, looking directly over their shoulder, providing assistance to them. We can even operate the Arm from the ground. It’s really about as close as you can get. So if this is what I need to be content with, that’s just fine with me.Lastly, how would you describe your experience with Cybermentor?
I’ve been involved with Cybermentor for close to six years now. It’s always a bit flattering to feel you have something to share and something that others might be interested in, but being a mentor also causes you to re-examine yourself – what you were like at that age, what influenced and motivated you – in order to provide guidance to others.
I enjoy Cybermentor to the extent that I correspond with the girl I am currently paired with and still keep in touch with some of my past mentees as well. A few years ago, I was paired with a girl who is starting an engineering degree at the University of Toronto and wants to work with the Canadian Space Agency. Sometimes the girls I’m working with are a little younger and aren’t all that interested in aerospace. That’s fine too. Both experiences have been wonderful because the girls have been so keen, so open and so willing to share. It’s always interesting to see the range of things they are interested in.