West Island News journalist, Becky Donohue, sits down with Dr. Farah Alibay, Montreal-native and Systems Engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to discuss the Mars Perseverance Mission and her experience of being a woman in STEM.
Dr. Alibay has become the representation that she sought for herself growing up a young woman of color in Joliette, Quebec. When she’s not busy remotely piloting a rover or helicopter on Mars, she dedicates herself to inspiring and empowering others to follow their hearts, especially youth and young girls growing up in communities where opportunities seem inaccessible.
Farah has proven that perseverance in making your dreams a reality truly can take you to the stars and beyond!
Interview Q & A:
West Island News: Were there any female figures who you looked up to as a child?
Dr. Farah Alibay: Growing up,the women in my family were very strong and I've always been very very close to my grandmother. She grew up in Madagascar right at the turn of the second World War and brought up a family - there was civil unrest in Madagascar. [She] moved with her husband to a brand new country, Canada, and to give her children a better chance at safety in life and education. She sacrificed so much. I think she's always been the example of a strong woman to me so certainly she's been the greatest inspiration of my life, In terms of women in STEM, that's something that took a little bit longer for me to have. I have to admit that growing up I loved space and one of the movies that inspired me to work in Aerospace is the movie Apollo 13, but you know as you know that movie mostly has a lot of white men so it actually took me awhile to figure out that there was a place for people like me at NASA because I didn't see that representation. I didn't even allow myself really to dream because I didn't know that there was a place for someone like me here. I think that really speaks to the importance of representation. I mean we always talk about that in generic words, but here’s one story where representation could have perhaps helped me figure out a little earlier what my path could be and feel that this could be a path for me.
WIN: Are you currently involved in any community outreach programs?
FA: Right now I’m very busy with Mars. The rover landed just a couple of weeks ago. I do participate in the Big Brother, Big Sister program in Los Angeles. I have a little sister who I have been mentoring now for five years. It’s been a wonderful experience. I also volunteer as a special advocate for the courts here in L.A. in the foster care system. Helping children navigate through that system and I navigate a child through that too in addition to giving talks, taking the time to answer the phone calls when people come knocking. It’s really important for me to give back to the community that helped me to get to where I am.
WIN: What inspired you to pursue this career in STEM? I know you said you didn't have quite the same ‘big sister’ to look up to.
FA: Growing up I was always sort of tinkering and breaking everything. My dad was an engineer so I learned a lot from him. There were no gender stereotypes in my house and that's something that I'm very grateful for. My dad, if he was repairing the car, I'd be the one there with him. If he needed to change a tire, I'd be there or fix something. I learned a lot from him and I think that's where a lot of my curiosity and ingenuity came from.
It took me a while to put two and two together right that, ‘Oh I love space and I like tinkering; like engineering is something that I can do,’ but once I did and once I discovered that that was a path, it all kind of clicked. Like, ‘Wow! This actually works with my brain. This is what I want to do,’ but even then I remember telling a teacher, I was 16 when I realized that was my path, and I remember sitting down with the career advisor and being like, ‘Yeah I think I want to be an engineer. I’ve been thinking about other careers, but I think this is what I want to do.’ And they answered, I remember they answered, ‘Well you know that’s a male dominated field. Not sure if you’re going to succeed there.’ And I was like, ‘What?!’ And I turned around and said, ‘No, no, no. Let me show you!’ So I don't know where this person is now, but I guess I showed them.
But again that was a moment I remember because for me, with my personality, if someone tells me something, I'm going to go do it. That's not necessarily how everyone reacts and we don't really encourage young girls to be engineers. We tell them, ‘Oh, you should be a doctor, a teacher, which are great careers, but we never say you should be an engineer. You should be a coder. You should be an astronaut.
Part of what I try to do by coming out and speaking about these things is encouraging people to see those roles as potentially being filled by anyone regardless of your gender, regardless of who you are and where you come from.
WIN: For the people that are currently going through that, the younger generations - what words of wisdom do you have?
FA: I can tell you that my journey was not a straight path. No one's is and you see a lot of stories about success, but we don’t really talk about the failures along the way. The amount of times I’ve applied for internships and was turned down. I failed exams. I remember, my first year of University was awful. I went home after my first semester crying that I would never make it. Everyone has had hurdles. What I can tell you is if you have a dream, pick yourself up when you have those through stumbles. Find allies. Find the energy, the force to get yourself back up and try again. If someone tells you no, ask again until someone tells you yes because it only takes one door. It only takes one opening for you to end up where you need to be. I only needed one job offer, not ten to be here. That’s what I like to remind folks, don’t fool yourself from the glitz that you’re seeing when people are landing things on Mars. Every single one of us have had their own struggles to get here. There is a path for you and there is a place for you.
WIN: Since you have been working with NASA, what do you think are some of the most valuable insights that you've gained from your experiences?
FA: It's been an incredible journey to get here. Working in any field, I think what I've learned and from the happiness that I've had in the past few years in my career, is that my biggest insight or thing that I want to share is that if you’re looking for your career, if you’re looking for that path, you should pick the thing that you’re curious about, pick the thing that you’re passionate about. Take that and figure out how to make it into a job and it’s going to make your life so much better! I mean I get paid to drive a Rover on Mars, like what?! It doesn’t matter, you know Mars is cool, space is cool and you should come do it but you know that might not be your passion. But whatever that passion is - often we are prescribed certain paths, but take a step back, figure out what that is and make that into your career. It's going to bring you so much more happiness and fulfillment than trying to follow the path that you think society has for you.
WIN: You are a part of such an amazing part of history right now. What does it feel like to be a part of history in the making? You know, what kind of thoughts are going through your head as you touch down on Mars, what emotions are you feeling as part of this groundbreaking astrobiological mission? I can imagine it’s very exciting!
FA: It’s incredible! I get to be part of a team that, yeah, makes history. It is incredibly humbling. I think every time I have a chance to take that step back and look at the amazing team that put this rover together. I mean we're literally talking about thousands of people that have put hundreds of thousands of hours into building this thing, landing it, and now operating it. It’s so humbling to be part of something this big.
I always tell people that what’s amazing with working with projects like this is that it’s bigger than a single person. It's literally what we can do as humans is build something that’s bigger than ourselves and to answer questions like, ‘Are we alone? Who are we? Where do we come from? Is there life somewhere else? What is our place in the universe?’ It gives me chills to even think about the fact that I get to be part of this, but you know on a day-to-day what that translates to is excitement. I mean every day I’m going to work we get new pictures of Mars. This week we’re going to be moving the arm for the first time, we’re going to be driving for the first time. We’re going to be exploring Jezero Crater, which is where we landed - it’s an ancient, dried up lake bed. Our goal is to drive towards the Delta of the Old river that used to feed that lake.
Every day I get to hear the scientists fascinated by the rocks we’re seeing, excited to share and to figure out what's going on. It’s a pleasure, honestly, from a day-to-day - we’re working long hours, but I don’t even feel it because of the adrenaline and the cool things that are happening.
WIN: As this is an astrobiological mission, the goal is to collect some samples. Do you have any idea when we may be getting those back so that we can test them? Or are we still building up to that point?
FA: We have a little bit of a timeline. Obviously, things are dependent on how long it takes us to figure out how to land a rocket on another planet to pick up those samples and bring them back. So yeah, there’s some technology we have to figure out along the way.
Our plan on Mars right now, we;re giving ourselves the first Martian year so that's two Earth years to collect a first cache of samples. We have a lot of tubes on board. The idea is that we would probably have more than one cache that we would leave in two different places, depending. That way it gives us options.
In parallel, the sample return part of the mission is already being designed. I think, right now, they’re sort of aiming for a 2026 launch date and a potential return date in the early 2030s. That probably sounds really late to people listening, ‘Ten years from now you’re going to bring this back.’ In the world of aerospace that is incredibly fast with modern technology. I think realistically, I personally am hoping that in the early 2030s we’ll be getting those samples back.
WIN: You’ve been a part of several Mars missions, you've been working with the red planet for some time now - what are you most excited about?
FA: Short-term what I'm most excited about is our first flight on Mars. Perseverance has a little helicopter that's tucked into its belly. I actually, as part of one of my jobs, get to coordinate all the operations of the rover and the helicopter during that technology demonstration. I’ve been really focused on getting that working. I am so, so excited to see that first flight.
We actually are hoping to get that in the next couple of months if it works… It’s a tech demo, we don’t know. Even to just get to be part of the team that is going to try that - isn’t that crazy?! We’ve only been flying on Earth for about a hundred years and now we're going to Mars! I think that's what I'm most excited about short-term.
I think long-term, to me, there’s been this revival and interest in space, right? We’re seeing all of these private companies develop rockets and gathering that interest. We at Nasa have been doing more missions than we ever have before. Perseverance just landed. We have a mission that's going to launch for Europa in the next few years to look for life there. We’ll be doing sample return. There is just so much going on and I think to me that's exciting. I'm excited to see the future of Aerospace. I think technology is moving really fast right now. Who knows, I think we're looking towards sending human's back to the moon and eventually to Mars. I'm pretty hopeful that we're going to see all those things in my lifetime and that’s going to be quite an extraordinary time.
WIN: I’m glad you brought up the helicopter. Now I know you’re from Montreal so you've experienced it yourself, some people struggle driving a car. How do you and your team prepare to remotely navigate not only a rover, but a helicopter on a completely different planet?
FA: I can tell you that parking on Mars is easier than parking in Montreal. I can start with that - no parallel parking on Mars. In terms of the helicopter itself, everything is automated so we pre-plan everything. We have to have on-board smarts because what happens on Mars is that, if I was to send a command to Mars right now, it would take about twelve minutes to get there and then the response would take twelve minutes. With a helicopter you can't be having these long delays, it has to be automated. So we send in a flight sequence based on what the terrain looks like, what the winds look like, what we know of the environment that day and it performs that flight. It has some on-board smarts to be able to land safely.
The Rover, we pre-plan everything. So the rover has two operational modes. There’s one where we make all the plans every night during the Martian night, build all the plans as a team, give it the guidance - ‘OK, you’re going to turn your wheels this way, you’re going to go five forward, three to the right, whatever it is.’ It’s a little bit like if kids were starting coding. I remember doing that and building up a code a little. It’s kind of the same, but a little harder. It’s a similar concept.
Our rover also has the ability to self drive. It has an additional computer onboard that is fully focused on visual navigation. You know we don't have maps on Mars, we don't have GPS, we don't have roads so what it does is as the rover is driving, it takes images 5 metres in front of it and it makes decisions. It literally builds the map that it’s going to drive on so it takes images, it makes decisions, drives and then continues to take images as it’s driving to make those decisions. So that is a capability that we do have on board and we hope to start exercising that again in the next few months 'cause it allows us to travel much longer distances in any given day otherwise when we’re planning drives from Earth we’re limited to the imagery we have. Whereas, when you're stopped driving you can still keep taking images.
WIN: How does that 30-minute delay actually play out? I know you said that as far as the helicopter, it is a completely pre-planned sequence. Does your team do it the day before?
FA: Let me explain, so what we do is work during the Martian night. It’s 6:30 a.m. in Los Angeles right now in early March and it's about 1 a.m. right now on Mars. Every night when the rover goes to sleep it sends us a set of data and images and things like that. We analyze that. We take all of that, make sure everything happened as we expected, and then we create a plan as a team.
Each person has a responsibility. Someone does the driving, the arm, the instruments, and then my job is to put all of that together into a master plan, test it and send it up to the rover. We get it up to the rover about 8 a.m. local Mars time. So we have, for example, for today's plan, a few more hours to get that up and then the rover wakes up and does its thing.
Now the challenge for humans to work the Martian night is that a martian day, which is a sol, is actually 24 hours and 40 minutes. Which means that even though I start my job every night at about 6 p.m. local Mars time, my day every day on Earth actually shifts by 40 minutes.
Right now I'm working the night shift. My day is going to end about 10, 11 a.m. today, but it's going to shift and by the time we get to next week, I'm actually going to be working the day shift. So we only do this for the first 90 sols, not 90 Martian days and it's a 36-day cycle, I think when all is said and done. It also means, when you think about it, then in those 90 sols, I’ll lose about 2 days of my life because I’m living Martian days.
WIN: Now, I can imagine that this can get really stressful. The rover’s system, does that kick in if there's an emergency? Say it rolls up and there is a giant crater or something that it can't quite navigate.
FA: When the rover is self-driving, if it gets to a point where it’s like, ‘Yeah I don't really see anywhere safe here.’ Then it stops and takes images and sends it home. So the rover is built to always be safe. If something weird is happening or something’s unexpected, we literally have a mode called ‘safe mode’ where it's kind of like in this cocoon. It calls home and it's like, ‘hey, help…’.
It is stressful because it’s this huge machine on another planet and there’s no garage there to fix it if anything happens, but we’ve built in the smarts to protect ourselves from any issues like that and then we work it on the ground. When there’s a challenge, we get the data and work it together.
WIN: You have been active on Mars missions for so long, can you tell us what is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about the Red Planet in this time? I know there is probably so much.
FA: I don't know that I can really pick one. Perseverance is only just starting its journey. I think it's definitely standing on the shoulders of giants of missions before it. So you know there's a lot of curiosity in the Mars exploration rovers. I think just looking at our journey of our understanding of Mars through these missions.
We thought Mars was this dead planet. Now we know that it has ice caps. We know that it used to have an atmosphere. It used to have liquid water and we know that because of these other missions of seeing MERSO and the Mars Exploration Rovers. We saw these, they called them the blueberries, which are these little rocks that are clearly eroded from water.
So I think what is the most fascinating is just seeing the buildup of our understanding of Mars through these missions and then getting to be part of the team that answers that next question. Maybe unlocking that next key