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Farah Alipay’s lesson

Farah Alipay’s lesson

“I broke down,” she admits as she talks about her early years working at a NASA laboratory in California, where she realized the challenges minorities could face in a particularly competitive, male-dominated field.

“I experienced a lot of microaggressions,” she notes. Nothing particularly shocking taken in isolation. Except that in the long run, when a man talks over others in a meeting, or when his technical knowledge is called into question or when another is called upon to present the fruit of his labor, these anecdotal instances end up locking him up in a certain isolation. And I witnessed.

Far from positioning herself as a victim, Farah Alipay points out to those following in her footsteps how to overcome these obstacles. “I started talking about it,” she says simply, and then the allies appear. “I was lucky enough to have mentors, people who helped me get back on my feet,” the engineer recalls, and now says she seeks to give back by playing that role as well.

Farah Alipay was later invited to demonstrate how institutions like universities can demonstrate more inclusion, immediately bringing up the importance of a network, and a community defined by affiliations, in her case of women in engineering.

Hit a wall

Reminisce about her first year of study at the prestigious University of Cambridge, where she also faced a major challenge in her career. She previously used to succeed easily in school, but now she has been experiencing serious academic failures since the beginning of the year.

“I almost gave up,” she recalls of this period of self-questioning. “Maybe I was aiming too high?”, she asks herself in this somewhat elitist environment, once again where she struggles to recognize herself. “I can count the women who suffer from racism” in the group on the fingers of one hand, she says.

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By telling how she finally managed to pass this stage, with honorable results, Farah Alipay offers another lesson to her (somewhat) young audience. “I asked for help,” she sums up, admitting that it takes a heavy dose of humility to do so.

From dream to reality

Inspired by cinematic classics Apollo 13 Through pioneers like Julie Payette who “gave her permission to dream,” the engineer saw in 2012 what would guide her toward her next big goal. Still an intern at NASA, she witnesses all the excitement surrounding a robot mission curiousityLoans perseverance. “Not only do I want to work here, I want to work on the next big robot,” she told herself.

It will actually join the mission in 2019, and about two years later, in February 2021, the landing of “her” robot in some way represents the fulfillment of that dream. Images coming from Mars at that time will also have a special impact on it. We see a Martian scene with tracks of robot wheels on the red earth. “The paths start from nowhere… because we came from heaven!” […] “We really get attached to our robots,” she says emotionally.

On this mission, she was part of the rover’s command team, working more specifically with the navigation system. Farah Alipay also often remembers the importance of teamwork, which seems to be one of the main factors of her motivation at work. She is happy to find at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory “an environment where everyone has a common mission.”

“No one can do this alone,” she says in front of a picture of the huge team behind the mission. “This is the very definition of engineering… and perhaps also humanity.” »

Farah Alibai

The Ingenuity light helicopter served as a “companion” for the Perseverance rover during its 2021 mission.

Why explore Mars, when the challenges on Earth are undeniably great and resources are limited? Beyond the human tendency to constantly innovate, push boundaries and constantly strive to learn, studying the Red Planet can also provide us with very valuable answers, according to Farah Alibay. “It could help us understand where we came from,” says the engineer, explaining that Mars had very similar conditions to Earth, making it a place where we can discover “signs of ancient life.”

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Returning more clearly with both feet to the Earth, one of the challenges of the century on Earth will undoubtedly be human adaptation to climate change. However, the study of climate change relies heavily on data from space. “Your weather forecasts come from satellites!”, says the aerospace engineer. Indeed, in this field, “the Earth is the planet we study the most,” emphasizes Farah Alibay.