Overcoming obstacles: the lesson of Farah Alibay – La Tribune

“I broke down,” she admits, talking about her first years at NASA’s California lab, where she realized the challenges minorities can face in a particularly competitive and predominantly male field.

“I experienced a lot of microaggressions,” she notes. Nothing particularly shocking in and of itself. However, when a man talks over the others in a meeting, when his technical knowledge is questioned, or when someone else is asked to present the fruits of his labor, these anecdotal cases tend to lock her into a certain solitude in the long run , she testified.

Far from portraying herself as a victim, Farah Alibay shows those who follow in her footsteps how to overcome these obstacles. “I started talking about it,” she says simply, and then allies show up. “I was lucky to have mentors, people who helped me get back on my feet,” recalls the engineer, who now says she wants to give something back by taking on this role too.

Farah Alibay is later called to clarify how institutions such as universities can be more inclusive and immediately reminds us of the importance of a network, a community defined by affinities, in her case of women in engineering.

Hit a wall

Looking back at her first year of study at the renowned University of Cambridge, where she also faced a major challenge in her career. Previously she was used to succeeding at school without any problems, but now she has to face serious academic failures right at the beginning of the year.

“I almost gave up,” she remembers of this time of self-questioning. “Maybe I set my sights too high? », she asks herself in this rather elitist environment in which she once again finds it difficult to recognize herself. “I could count the racialized women” in the cohort on the fingers of one hand, she says.

By sharing how she ultimately made it with otherwise honorable results, Farah Alibay teaches another lesson to her (fairly) young audience. “I asked for help,” she summarizes, admitting that it takes a fair amount of humility.

The Maurice O'Bready Room was practically full for Farah Alibay's conference.

From dream to reality

Inspired by the classic film Apollo 13 and pioneers like Julie Payette, who “gave her permission to dream,” the engineer saw in 2012 what would lead her to her next big goal. She was still an intern at NASA and experienced all the excitement surrounding the mission of the Curiosity robot, the predecessor of Perseverance. “I not only want to work here, but also on the next big robot,” she told herself.

She will actually join the mission in 2019 and around two years later, in February 2021, the landing of “her” robot will, in a sense, mark the fulfillment of this dream. They will also be particularly touched by the images that arrived from Mars at that time. We see a Martian landscape with the tracks of the robot’s wheels on the red soil. “The tracks start from nowhere… because we came from heaven!” […] We’re really attached to our robots,” she says emotionally.

On this mission, she was part of the rover’s driving team and worked particularly with the navigation system. Farah Alibay also often reminds herself of the importance of teamwork, which seems to be one of the main reasons for her work motivation. She is excited to find “an environment where everyone has a common mission” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“No one could have done this alone,” she says in front of a photo of the huge team behind the mission, “and it is the definition of engineering… and perhaps humanity too.” »

– Farah Alibay

The Ingenuity ultralight helicopter was the

And why explore Mars when the challenges on Earth are undeniably great and resources are limited? Aside from the very human tendency to always innovate, push boundaries and constantly learn, Farah Alibay says exploring the Red Planet could also provide us with very valuable answers. “It could help us understand where we come from,” says the engineer, explaining that Mars once had conditions very similar to those on Earth, making it a place where we are discovering “signs of ancient life.” could.

To be even more concrete, keep both feet on the ground: One of the challenges of the century on Earth will undoubtedly be human adaptation to climate change. However, climate change research relies heavily on data from space. “Your weather forecast comes from satellites! » says the aerospace engineer. In fact, “Earth is the planet we explore the most in this area,” assures Farah Alibay.