Get kids hooked on science, NASA’s Farah Alibay tells Quebec at C2



Scientists are the new rock stars and Quebec would be smart to turn children on to careers in scientific fields.

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Scientists are the new rock stars and Quebec would be smart to turn children on to “cool careers” in such cutting-edge fields as aerospace and clean technologies.

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That’s the message Montreal-born systems engineer Farah Alibay, of Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover fame, brought to the eclectic C2 Montreal conference Wednesday. Alibay, now 33, made headlines — and history — this past winter for her role in helping a National Aeronautics and Space Administration crew land Perseverance on Mars.

“When I was growing up, science wasn’t all that cool,” Alibay told the Montreal Gazette in an interview at St-Michel’s TOHU performance space after addressing C2 attendees. “If you were interested in science, it was kind of nerdy. You were left out. What we’ve seen in the past year in general is that the scientists are the rock stars of 2021. They are the ones that brought forward the COVID-19 vaccine or landed on Mars. There are a lot of extraordinary things that have happened. I’ve been given a platform and I’m trying to use it to show people that science is accessible. It’s something that belongs to everyone, and where everyone belongs. I think that we need to do more to display that passion. That’s how kids and young adults get interested. It’s important to motivate the next generation and allow them to dream.”

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Alibay spent her early years in Joliette before moving to the United Kingdom at the age of 13 when her father accepted a job there. She went on to obtain undergraduate and masters degrees from the University of Cambridge in aerospace and aerothermal engineering. Later, she moved to the United States to pursue a doctorate in space systems engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a minor in planetary science.

Despite harbouring ambitions of a space exploration career from a young age, Alibay feels she was more or less left to her own devices in figuring out how to pursue what she calls “these grand dreams of mine.” That’s why she wants to use her newfound fame to help spread the word about science and the fulfilling careers that await those who embrace it.

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“Why is it that kids dream of becoming rock stars or artists? Because they see those people,” she said. “So let’s show them alternatives. Let’s show them other options for their careers.”

Quebec, which has major science-based industries of its own, shouldn’t be shy about showcasing its capabilities, adds Alibay, who has been working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. since 2014.

“One thing that always baffles me — if you look at Quebec, its population is the size of Los Angeles,” she said. “Look at what we do as a province, and all the extraordinary industries that we have here for such a small population. We’re leaders in clean energy. There’s a lot that happens in the movie industry. So we have the drive and we have the basis here. Let’s just show people they can stay here and have an extraordinary career, and that we as a society are going to support that and provide them opportunities.”

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Now that the Perseverance mission has been successfully completed, Alibay says she is focusing on writing an autobiography while trying to decide what to do next.

“For me, it’s been eight years of Mars,” she said. “It’s fun to be able to say that I’ve landed on Mars twice, and I’m 33. That’s been my commitment so far, but I want to keep exploring other parts of the solar system and the universe, as well.”

Asked about possible landing spots, she rattles off a list that includes future missions to Venus and various asteroids, as well as the Europa Clipper — a NASA spacecraft that will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Jupiter’s Europa moon in search of suitable conditions for life.

“It’s quite extraordinary how much is going on in aerospace now, and how interesting it all is,” she said. “This is the time for astrophysics. The James Webb space telescope is launching in December. We’re going to learn about exoplanets and the origins of the universe, and there are a number of supporting missions around that. There’s just too many to pick from. So I’ll probably end up on one of those projects and then move around to another one. That’s the beauty. I have more than one option.”

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Asked earlier by a C2 interviewer about the relevance of space exploration at a time when climate change would seem to be a more immediate priority, Alibay was unapologetic.

“Why can’t we just do both? It’s not that expensive to go to Mars, go explore and figure out a pretty existential question of ‘Are we alone? Is there life elsewhere in the universe?’”

Humans invest in fundamental science “because we don’t know what we’ll find,” Alibay said. “Of course we have to take care of our planet, but we also have to push our boundaries outside of what we know. Often we find out extraordinary things that help us here on Earth.”

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