Q & A with Farah Alibay – Systems Engineer

Q:Why did you decide to study Systems Engineering?

I was really interested in a career in aerospace (I wanted to be an astronaut!) and I was also very good at maths and physics. In college, I studied Aerospace Engineering and, once I started graduate school, I realized that I wanted to have a broader knowledge of how full space systems work and how design decisions are made. That’s why I picked a thesis topic in systems engineering.

Q:Would you recommend others to study it & why?

My recommendation is always to follow your heart and study was you like! If you want a career in aerospace, there’s a number of ways you can get there. Whether it’s studying mechanical engineering, computer science, aerospace, physics, chemistry, maths, or even film studies, there’s a place for everyone in this field. It’s much easier to do well in a field that you enjoy!

Q:What would you be studying if you weren’t a Systems Engineer?

I think I’d be studying planetary sciences. I have a minor in planetary science and I really enjoy working with scientists and learning about other planets. Within planetary science, I’m particularly interested in geology and understanding how planets form and evolve – that’s partially why I’m on the InSight mission now. This mission will help understand what the interior of Mars looks like and how it evolved over time.

Q:What kept you motivated throughout University?

Whenever I got discouraged, I took a step back and looked at the bigger picture and tried to remember that I was following my dream! University isn’t easy, but if you’re doing something you love and that will lead you to your dream career (in my case working in the space industry), it’s all really worth it!

Q:Who are your mentors and what’s your secret to success in life?

Work hard and don’t give up! I surround myself with mentors at work, who I can talk to about my goals and aspirations, and also get advice from. These mentors are both men and women who are at the top of their field – you’ll find that most people who did well in their career are always more than happy to impart advice on younger people!

Q:How do you respond to disappointments?

I pick myself up and try again! In life, there’s always going to be ups and downs, and your biggest asset is to learn to deal with disappointment. I’ve been turned down for jobs and new opportunities dozens of times, but it only took one “yes” for me to get my dream job. So when things don’t go your way, just take a little time to figure out what you could have done better… and try again!

Q:What do you want people to learn from you? Or who impacted you the most?

One of the things I found really hard when I was younger is that there were very few women, let alone women of colour, that I could look up to in my field. My goal now is to change that, and act as a mentor for younger women who want to study engineering. That’s why I try to do as much outreach as I can in my community – it’s much easier for young people to pursue a career in STEM if they can see themselves in it; and by that I mean if they can see “normal” people that look like them do those jobs.

Q:How are you giving back to your community through your career?

As I mentioned, I do a lot of outreach. I give talks at local schools, participate in workshops, and even help teach at a space camp. I also mentor a few young women and have a Little Sister through the Big Brother /Big Sister program.

Q:Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Hopefully working on a mission to another planet, but in a higher position than I am now. I’d really like to be in charge of the flight system design for a mission, or work directly with scientists and lead the payload development. What I know for sure that I’ll be doing is that I’ll be in a job where I’m continuously learning and pushing myself to be a better engineer.

Q:Any encouragements for university students who feel like giving up in life or those who have not found their passion yet?

Don’t give up! There are always hard times, but it’ll all be worth it in the end. And for those who maybe don’t know what they want to do in life yet – just continue studying in areas that you like and stay curious. I was once told a very useful piece of advice: “If you don’t know what your passion is yet, go to a bookstore and see which section you naturally gravitate to. Is it cars? Horses? Travel? Cooking? Whatever it is that draws you, that’s your passion. Once you know what it is, dive right in and learn as much as you can about it, be the best at it”. That’s exactly how I feel about aerospace and I’m sure that it’s what most people feel about their own career.

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