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Julia Stankiewicz from Poland at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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She doesn’t feel special. – When you study in France, you will quickly see that everyone there speaks several languages, just like me. At NASA, you will also notice that you are among the six hundred interns and you do not stand out from them with your level of knowledge in engineering – explains Julia Stankiewicz, the only Polish woman on an internship at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in an interview with TVN24 Biznes. This place is the pinnacle of dreams for many students of the space industry. How to get there? ‘Even if someone has similar technical skills, if they have a better network, they’re more likely to go further,’ he says.

Julia Stankiewicz, a 27-year-old Polish woman from Gdańsk, has been working in NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), at one of NASA’s research centers in Pasadena, California. He writes an algorithm that will allow for the automated creation of maps of natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods.

– The point is that you need to have quick access to what exactly happened in a given geographical area and how the natural disaster affected the surface of the earth or the infrastructure. The goal is that similar summaries of natural disaster events do not have to be done manually – he explains in an interview with TVN24 Biznes and adds that he is working to ensure that the filtered data shows the most important results within a minute.

– Thanks to this, the rulers can quickly decide what further actions and rescue operations to implement – he points out.

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Imposter Syndrome: You have to work harder to catch up

She completed her BSc Aerospace Engineering at the University of Manchester, Space Studies Program at the International Space University. She was also on an Erasmus exchange at the Sorbonne, where she studied robotics, and is currently studying at the Technical University of Munich. However, despite her professional achievements, she does not feel special.

– Because how do you study in France, you will quickly see that everyone there speaks several languages, just like me. At NASA, you will also notice that you are among the six hundred interns and you do not stand out from them with your level of engineering knowledge – he explains.

He describes that NASA interns are mostly from the United States. Small percent are people from other parts of the world also due to the fact that there are a lot of restrictions related to what projects non-US citizens can work on. This is important because, according to Stankiewicz, it cannot be compared to the students there.

He explains that when they were seven, they came to NASA for the so-called “open door”, and they were in robotics courses at the age of ten. They had a different start.

– But when I was their age, I watched documentaries about space, science fiction fairy tales, for example “Trapped in time” or “Treasure Planet”. When I was seven years old, I started a music school, played the piano and attended drawing classes. I was focused on artistic things. This context makes me sometimes have impostor syndrome, he says.

It’s about the feeling that he constantly has to catch up with his knowledge. It’s natural for people to compare themselves. When you see that they know more than you and are at the same stage of education, you subconsciously feel that something is wrong, that you need to work more, catch up with something – he says.

He also highlights another difficulty that comes with starting projects from scratch.

– I have always worked in the same industry, but on various projects, for example, simulating and developing aircraft engines, operating satellites and testing propulsion for small satellites. Then you have to sit down at something, get to know some area, and this requires constant trying, experimenting and perseverance – he points out.

Julia Stankiewicz at NASAPrivate materials of Julia Stankiewicz

How to get to NASA?

The road to NASA JPL, to the peak of dreams for many students of the space industry, lasted three years in the case of Julia Stankiewicz. Where to start? – I was looking online, at conferences for people who work there and projects that I could get involved in. In 2021, I was doing the “Space Studies Program” course at the International Space University and I saw that its director knew a JPL employee who could be my mentor. I asked him to introduce us. It happened. We chatted online and he offered me a project on his team – he shares.

He emphasizes that this is a very important moment, because in order to get a visiting scientist internship at NASA, you need to find a mentor who will agree to accept the student for the program. – And to have funding, because for such a program you need to have 2.4 thousand dollars a month, and in reality you need more. At least 3-3.5 thousand dollars, because that’s how much it costs to live in Pasadena. First, I found a mentor, and then sponsors – she emphasizes.

Based on his experience, he believes that building relationships and networks is an important skill. – This competence is related to courage, but resistance to potential rejection. When you ask for great things and opportunities, you have to be prepared to hear ‘no’,’ he explains.

According to her, it also requires accepting being in psychologically difficult situations, especially when attending industry conferences and initiating conversations with strangers.

– You are also trying to sell yourself, to present yourself, so that you can work together. This is such an important skill that even if someone has similar technical competence, if they have a better network of contacts, they are more likely to go further – he says.

How much does it cost to acquire specialized education?

So the question arises how much it costs to acquire specialized knowledge. Julia Stankiewicz enumerates that studies in England cost her 9 thousand. pounds a year, but studies in Germany they are free, and in addition, she received a scholarship.

– For the first six years, I was supported by a Fahrenheit scholarship from the City of Gdańsk. I was also supported by my parents, without whom I would not be where I am today. After my second year of studies, I started working and supported myself with the money I earned during my internships. Today, I am sponsored by the Rafał Brzoska Foundation, the Talent Development Foundation, the Anna Pasek Foundation and the Technical University in Munich, which I currently attend – he lists.

Even though the amounts he talks about are high, he believes that acquiring knowledge does not have to be so expensive. It encourages you to look for scholarships and free courses of study. – In the whole process, first of all, you invest your time. Studying abroad is an amazing adventure, but it also requires a lot of perseverance and dedication – he says.

Julia Stankiewicz at NASAPrivate materials of Julia Stankiewicz

So what was the most important moment? – When I visited the air traffic control mission. The place where rover landings and satellite launches were controlled. I watched videos of the landings and thought it was amazing how many years of work people put into the whole process. I saw the rover successfully landing on Mars and felt proud to be at the center of this world. That I work with people who create such amazing things – recalls Julia Stankiewicz.

Read also: Brzezinski: American companies see something special in Poland

Main photo source: Private materials of Julia Stankiewicz



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