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Kristen - Aerospace Engineer

  Photograph of Kristen Facciol  Kristen is an aerospace engineer working for MDA Space Missions as an embedded contractor at the Canadian Space Agency.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

From about 7-17 years old, I wanted to become a paediatrician. I had background hobbies focused around music and space but was very much convinced that I wanted a career in medicine. A lot of this may have had to do with my limited exposure to other careers that required strong maths and science foundations, so I thought this was the ideal route to pursue given my academic interests.  

Who or what inspired you to become an aerospace engineer?

It was my final year maths teacher at school, Grace Barone, who eventually inspired me to pursue a career in engineering. She had suggested I apply to do an engineering course in addition to the science courses I had selected when I was looking into options for university. She had completed Chemical Engineering at the University of Toronto which was where I eventually ended up as well. I wasn’t sure what each of the courses offered so applied for Engineering Science because this allowed students to major in options that were more novel than the traditional disciplines - I was specifically interested in Biomedical and Aerospace Engineering. Ultimately, my love for space and new found love for robotics lead me to major in Aerospace Engineering with a focus on space robotics.

Tell us a little bit about your role. What does your typical day involve?

My typical day involves a combination of tasks all focused on the robotics systems on the International Space Station (ISS), including Canadarm2 and Dextre (or SPDM). Primarily, I perform different analyses to ensure that the robots can perform the required tasks, suggest optimal parameters for enhanced performance and develop reconfiguration files for the control systems. This eventually also requires real-time flight support to ensure everything is going nominally and give operational recommendations when requested. I am also involved in crew training, which is the programme that all new astronauts must go through in order to learn how to properly operate Canadarm2.

What do you love about your job and what would you change?

I truly love every aspect of my job. It is the perfect combination of continued learning and obtaining industrial experience, and even after 4 years I still look forward to going to work in the morning. There are always opportunities for personal growth and I appreciate the constant challenge of my work. If I did have to change something that is absolutely beyond my control, it would be the support offered to the Canadian space program. I feel as though it doesn’t have the reputation or budget of other space agencies around the world and wish that Canada could play a larger role.

What qualifications did you take at school/college?

I received a Bachelor of Applied Science in Aerospace Engineering.

Did you go to university? Was a degree required for your role?

Yes. I attended the University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada). A degree (generally in engineering or computer science) is absolutely required for my role.

What gives you the most job satisfaction?

Job satisfaction largely comes from seeing the way our work is perceived in the public eye. Whether it is an article written on the success of a mission or the way people respond when I talk about my work, it gives me an appreciation above and beyond the general satisfaction I feel on a daily basis. Of course, the feeling of seeing Canadarm2 or Dextre in action for a mission that I was heavily involved in is something that cannot be captured in words.

What’s the most unexpected thing about your job?

The most unexpected aspect of my job is realizing how much there is yet to learn when I reflect on everything I know. I feel like this is something that will persist throughout my career, which also makes it one of the most appreciated aspects of my job.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young person who is considering becoming an engineer, what would it be?

Pursue engineering because it is something you absolutely have a passion for, and don’t let that passion be affected by the stress of the course, the grades you receive or what anyone else thinks about the profession. Do what you love because this will ensure you do it well.

What do your friends/family think about your job?

My friends and family often claim I have “one of the coolest jobs ever”. It gives me an inexplicable sense of pride when I hear the way they speak of what I do to others, even if it’s in the way I am introduced (e.g. “This is my friend Kristen... she works with space robots!” or “This is Kristen - she’s a rocket scientist!”). It’s kind of cool to hear people speak well of what you are doing when it’s something you’ve worked so hard to attain. It also gives a refreshing perspective to what I do as you sometimes lose sight of the “cool factor” when you’re surrounded by people who do the same thing.  

Do you have any hobbies that you like to do to relax?

I pick up my guitar for at least 20 minutes a few times a week and am often found listening to music. I also play several sports and take a few classes at the gym – my favourites are squash, hockey, football, yoga, Pilates, snowboarding, hiking and volleyball. All of this, coupled with the incredible lifestyle and friends that Montreal has to offer keep me pretty relaxed.   

Would you say that you had a good work/life balance?

Absolutely! Although there are periods where work can become more demanding or when the mission schedule requires overnight flight support, my life is very much balanced. It’s important to know what makes you happy - both in and outside of work. I’ve also realised how important it is to be a part of social circles that don’t always include the people you work with.  

What are the biggest implications your work will/could have in the future?

The future of space exploration and the role that Canada will play lies entirely in the hands of the Canadian Space Agency. Although I don’t work for them directly, being an embedded contractor allows me to work on the front lines, which includes being able to communicate directly with NASA. The work that my group does directly impacts the performance of the robotics systems on the ISS, which will hopefully prove our capabilities to develop new systems with a wider variety of applications in the future.

What excites you most about engineering?

One of the most exciting aspects about engineering is the fact that every discipline is constantly evolving, giving an opportunity for new engineers to provide solutions indefinitely.

What should no engineer leave home without?

In Canada, I would say their iron ring. It is a well-recognised symbol that many wear with a sense of pride. Otherwise, no engineer should leave home without their sense of curiosity. Wanting to understand how the world works and being eager to develop methods for improvement define the foundation that careers in engineering are built on.