As Canadian Women’s History Month winds down, let’s meet a woman making inroads in STEM: Canadian Space Agency project management engineer, Miriam Micael. In our conversation, we talk about her relationship with STEM as she was growing up, her path into the industry, the game-changing projects that she’s been a part of so far, training at NASA and mentoring the next generation.
Her relationship with math and science while growing up
Miriam excelled at math in both elementary and high school. Although she admits she was “OK” at sciences except for biology, she was fascinated by medical dramas and CSI-type TV shows. “I loved the science behind them, and there was a genuine interest in how things worked and how they’re made up.”
There was a learning curve in the transition from high school to university, but she wasn’t discouraged by it. Miriam shared, “I didn’t know what I was going to do, and then I gradually gravitated towards engineering.” She added, “There are so many different fields within engineering. I went to Carleton University, and they have 13 different streams that you can go into. So, I worked backwards and asked, ‘What don’t I want to do?’ That narrowed it down, and aerospace engineering was an area that I thought was interesting, challenging, and super cool in terms of what there is to learn. The landscape is vast and there are many different things that you can do within it, so that’s the one that I decided to go into.”
She went on to specialize in materials and designs for aircraft.
A winding career path
Miriam’s career path was anything but linear after she graduated from university. She worked as a recruiter at her alma mater, Carleton, and then focused on recruiting within the Faculty of Engineering and Design.
“I started a mentorship program for high school students in terms of learning what engineering is and the different types of engineering,” she told us. “My idea was to allow high school students to come in and shadow a current student, so they got to be in class with a second-year student and talk to them one-on-one.”
She also focused on how to get more women into STEM by looking at why women gravitate towards some programs more than others, and what can be done to make a change.
While working as a recruiter, she got a project management certificate and decided that she wanted to pursue that within engineering, and applied to an engineering development program at the Canadian Space Agency. “I really like being able to talk to people and work with different groups,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to go through the screening process and be selected.”
Now, Miriam is a project management engineer with the Agency, a role that lets her balance the technical aspects she enjoyed in university with the human interaction and presentation skills that she excelled in as a recruiter. She works with different teams, including systems engineering, safety and mission assurance, and all of the technical experts. She’s the one who presents to the executives, and who manages the expectations of everyone involved. The final link in the chain is how the data is put to practical use. “Our end client is the person who is going to take this data, use it, and put it out there for Canadians,” Miriam explained.
Wait, Canada has a space agency?!
“First and foremost, the thing that people are most surprised to learn is that there’s a Canadian Space Agency,” Miriam shared, and that students go on to learn about Canada’s role in robotics, both worldwide and in relation to the International Space Station. This includes Canadarm, Canadarm 2 and the upcoming Canadarm 3 for the Lunar Gateway Space Station with NASA.
Canadians and people in general often don’t realize what space can do for them.
“I don’t think people understand just how big and important the Canadian Space Agency is,” she told us. “You don’t have NASA looking to make their own Canadarm because Canada’s right here and we do it well.”
The other important role that the Canadian Space Agency plays is in looking at the benefits of satellites for Earth observation, and how it affects everyday life.
“Farming, the environment, climate change, smoke monitoring, weather, air forecasting — satellites are used to monitor all these things,” Miriam explained. “Canadians and people in general often don’t realize what space can do for them.”
Using satellites to understand and fight climate change
When it comes to the space industry, missions to Mars and shuttle launches tend to make the headlines while satellites are overlooked.
“One of the big projects that I was on when I joined the agency was part of the RADARSAT constellation mission that was launched in 2019,” Miriam told us. “It’s three satellites that observe Canada daily, every 90 minutes or so, to monitor things like oceans, ice and soil shift that helps a dozen different government departments from agriculture to fisheries. That data goes to farmers and people working at Environment Canada and Climate Change Canada, helping us in our day-to-day lives.”
Miriam’s current focus is the WildFireSat, a project with the Canadian Forest Service that will help monitor wildfires within the country. They’re planning to launch the satellite within the next five to six years, and it will allow the Canadian Forest Service to produce fire data products directly to fire managers in provinces and territories across the country and help them with combatting wildfires.
“The aim is to get data to them within 30 minutes, so you want quick, reliable data,” she explained. “There’s a direct relationship and it’s nice to see the good that can come from it.” It’s a project that Miriam is very passionate about, especially since at present time, Canada doesn’t have extensive satellite coverage because of our latitude.
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Training at NASA
Miriam had the opportunity to train at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, an experience she describes as “surreal.”
“I was fortunate to be one of two people selected from the Canadian Space Agency,” she said. “And it wasn’t just us and NASA. There were actually people from all over the world, including the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the European Space Agency.”
They trained eight hours a day in a program that focused on the collaborative aspects of project management. Miriam told us, “Yes, space is big, but the space industry is small, so we’re constantly collaborating with different space agencies across the world, like with the James Webb space telescope mission.”
Her final day at NASA wrapped early, so she was able to tour the Kennedy Space Center, take part in some fun activities and see things like rockets, launchers and even a shuttle. “I was very lucky to be able to do that, and it was an amazing experience,” said Miriam.
Mentoring the next generation
As part of her work with the Canadian Space Agency, Miriam worked with the communications team on a project called Junior Astronauts, introducing students in Grades 6 to 9 to STEM and space in particular. It was supposed to be an in-person camp, but they shifted to a virtual program due to COVID.
She explained, “At the agency, we look at areas where STEM isn’t necessarily available and easily accessible.” A total of 52 students were selected for Junior Astronauts, which allowed them to speak with multiple astronauts and even remotely control a rover.
At its conclusion, Miriam commented, “Many of the kids left the program thinking, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing this.’ I wouldn’t say that they weren’t interested before, but they probably didn’t know what the possibilities were for them within STEM and within space.”
Barriers to women in STEM
While efforts are being made to increase the number of women working in STEM, there are still barriers to that progress. Workload, especially in the private sector, is a challenge. “When you’re in tech, there’s always the drive to do so much and to excel all the time. People are looking to work at 120 per cent constantly, and that can be tough,” Miriam said.
STEM is changing, but it’s still male-dominated, with women slowly being integrated into it. “Sometimes, it takes women longer to build up a reputation and credibility,” Miriam told us. “The biggest thing is patience. It’s really tough to say, but it is something that I’ve learned. It’s important to be confident and competent in what you do. If you feel that you’re doing your best, and excelling to the best of your abilities, you can’t do much more than that.”
When it comes down to it, Miriam sees the value in working within the space industry. “I find the intricacies in the unknown in space interesting and amazing,” she said. “We test a lot of things in space because if they work in space, that means they can work in extreme climates on Earth. Being able to work at the space agency and seeing how it can help people here is gratifying.”
She added, “We’re just dipping our feet into the pond of space and there’s so much more we can do. With technology advancements and private companies looking to get into space, we’re going to see that grow and get more people involved in the field who had some interest but didn’t know where they would fit in.”
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