Farah Alibay is a female aerospace engineer in a male-dominated field, but that hasn’t stopped the 32-year-old from forging ahead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Los Angeles to help reveal the secrets of Mars.
Alibay, who grew up in Joliette, Quebec, first became interested in space when she saw the movie “Apollo 13” at the age of 10.
“I got so worried watching the movie that my parents fast forwarded all the way to the end to show me that the astronauts had survived,” she told HuffPost Quebec. “Afterward, we watched the rest of the movie. It really fascinated me to see the engineers working together, even though they were all men.”
“My brother, who had always loved space, lost all interest in it once the movie was over,” she said. “From then on, I was the space lover.”
Inspiration To Pursue A Science Career
Growing up, Alibay had few female scientist role models. But one person has had a big impact on her career path: Julie Payette, an astronaut born in Montreal who is now governor general of Canada, a position that represents the queen and carries out her responsibilities in the country.
“We barely had an internet connection when I was in the sixth grade,” Alibay said. “For me, NASA was what you saw in the movies and when there were launches. Seeing someone like Julie Payette in magazines and on the news was the only way I was able to see that people like me worked there.”
From a young age, Alibay was confronted with the reality of feeling like an outsider.
“We were the only immigrant family in Joliette,” she said, noting her parents emigrated from Madagascar. “I was the only brown girl in my school. I always had a head for science and my grades were good, but I experienced a lot of bullying.” She said those challenging years made her develop a strong personality that has since been useful.
When Alibay was 13, her family moved to England for her father’s work as an engineer. She went on to study aerospace engineering at Cambridge University. While working toward her master’s degree, she was the only woman in the entire lab — a place where finding a women’s restroom was a challenge.
Alibay moved to the U.S. in 2010 to pursue a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also ended up getting two internships at NASA. While watching the Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars, Alibay realized she wanted to work at JPL.
“I was offered a job before I finished my second internship,” she said. “It gave me a pretty good incentive to finish my Ph.D.”
Currently, Alibay is working on the Mars rover for the 2020 mission, scheduled for launch in July. Once it lands, she and her team will handle all the operations required to get the vehicle up and running on the red planet. The goal is to better understand the planet’s evolution, determine if there was ever life on Mars, and work on preparing the planet for a future human visit.
Gender Equality Doesn’t Happen Overnight
When it comes to how women and employees from diverse backgrounds are treated, Alibay said a lot has changed during her six years at JPL. But there is still a long way to go.
“Most of the people here are white men. When you’re a woman of color with red hair, people remember you. I see that as an asset,” she said. “When I’m in a room and I’m doing a good job, people remember me because there’s no one else like me.”
Alibay would eventually like to become a project manager, a position in which she still sees very few female scientists. Even today, despite her degrees and skills, she still has periods of doubt about her abilities.
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m the right person for the job, and I think that I’m going to have that feeling for my entire career. It’s important to talk about it because a lot of women feel that way,” she said.
Despite having moments of uncertainty, Alibay has plenty of ambition while looking forward: She would like to be part of the team that could potentially collect samples from Mars for the first time, and she has her sights on missions to other planets and their moons.
Alibay has also made it her duty to get involved in shaking up the established standards for gender and diversity.
“When you’re the only woman and you have a different opinion, or tell someone that they’re wrong, it’s hard,” she said. “When I work on teams with more women or more diversity, I often notice better collaboration within the teams.”
Among other things, she mentors female engineers at the beginning of their careers and speaks in schools to encourage young girls to consider a career path in science.
“When I was little, I was good at school, but they told me I should become a doctor or a teacher,” she said. “We never tell little girls that they should become engineers or astronauts.”
“I want to show everyone that a diverse team can perform. I want to change the aerospace culture and the way we integrate young female engineers and celebrate differences. At the end of my career, I want to be able to say that I was one of the people who helped change that culture,” she said. “If I can contribute to that, I think I will have accomplished my mission.”