Award-Winning Technologist Dr. Natalya Bailey Advises Women in Tech to ‘Embrace What Makes You Different’

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By Robert Half September 23, 2019 at 8:00am

Dr. Natalya Bailey’s deep fascination with space and the belief that intelligent life must exist beyond Earth began by observing the surprisingly busy night sky from her backyard trampoline.

“I grew up in a small town in northwest Oregon, where there is very little light pollution,” she says. “I used to spend nights sleeping outside on the trampoline, looking at the stars. I don’t remember how old I was when I first realized that some of the ‘stars’ passing by were actually the International Space Station (ISS) and various stages of rockets. I also thought a lot about aliens, and how there has to be other intelligent life out there, given the number of stars.”

Dr. Bailey’s early curiosity and contemplation about space helped set her on a path to a career in technology — more specifically, aerospace engineering. Today, she is CEO and co-founder of Accion Systems in Boston, Mass., a company that aims to accelerate the exploration of space with its innovative ion engine technology. Dr. Bailey is considered one of the top leaders in the emerging field of small satellite propulsion, and she is passionate about helping to grow the number of women in tech — and at Accion. Over the past year, more than half of Accion’s new hires have been women.

AnitaB.org, the leading nonprofit organization focused on the advancement of women technologists, has acknowledged Dr. Bailey’s achievements in technology by naming her the recipient of the 2019 Emerging Technologist Abie Award. The annual award, which Robert Half Technology is sponsoring this year, recognizes woman technologists in the first 10 years of their careers.

Robert Half Technology recently spoke with Dr. Bailey to discuss her Abie Award and find out more about her work, life and passion for technology. Here’s what she shared with us:

As a child, when you were first pondering the vastness of space and the potential for alien life, how did you begin your study of these things? Where did you go for information?

Most of my thinking about aliens was just in my own head. I didn’t realize that the Drake Equation [a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy] existed. That equation already said what I was starting to formulate in my own head and determine through my own odd experiments.

The only thing I went to the internet for, in terms of research, was to figure out exactly what these moving dots of light were in the night sky. I looked for information about the ISS and satellite pass-over times, and to figure out what rockets I was looking at.

Did you enjoy math and science at school? And looking back, do you feel you had a lot of support to study those topics and, ultimately, pursue a technology career?

I always enjoyed math. I had a knack for it. But my guidance counselor in high school was the first person to suggest combining the two things that I was really passionate about — aliens and math — into a career. That opened my eyes to the field of aerospace engineering.

I definitely received a lot of support from my family to pursue the study of space and a technology career. No one in my family worked in these areas, though. They were all in the medical field — doctors and nurses. I’m kind of the odd one out, I guess. Not sure what happened there!

What nontechnical subjects were you drawn to in school that you believe gave you knowledge or skills that are helpful in your career today?

I was very serious about music. I played the clarinet — and almost went to college for it. If that had been the case, I suppose we might not be having this conversation!

Music is math — the two are more closely related than they might seem at first. And there was a lot of responsibility and self-discipline that I had to learn when playing the clarinet.

One other important thing I learned from being involved in music is not to be discouraged when you are bad at something. Each time I would take a step up — from band to orchestra, or to a higher chair or level of competition — I was essentially ‘bad’ again. In other words, I was in a position where I had to earn my way up to the next level. So, I learned to not be discouraged and to go after new challenges, looking forward to the growth and improvement that they bring.

What is an example of a challenge you encountered as a woman in technology?

Well, one thing that comes to mind is that I made it all the way to graduate school without much hands-on hardware experience, or even tinkering. Midway through grad school, I had to move away from the purely theoretical work and start building and testing hardware. I had no prior experience doing that. A lot of men who grew up around the same time as me probably wouldn’t say the same thing.

So, I did what I always do in these sorts of situations. I signed up for some classes, found people to ask for support, dove in, and blundered through it until I went up that learning curve.

So, it sounds like two key things you’ve learned as a woman in technology is that you shouldn’t be afraid to blunder and that sometimes you have to take steps back in order to move forward in your career?

Yes, that’s correct.

Tell us a bit about the ion engine technology that you developed. What is it used for exactly?

The whole purpose of the ion engine is to maneuver a satellite, probe or robot — any kind of spacecraft — once it is in orbit. Spacecraft must move forward, backward, up and down. And to do that, they need thrust. To produce that force in space, you need to throw some material out of the back of the spacecraft at high speed to push the spacecraft in the opposite direction. That’s the whole principle of the law of conservation of momentum.

In our ion engine, the material we are throwing out of the back of the spacecraft is ions. Think of it like an astronaut sitting on the back of a rocket, throwing tennis balls. Every time she throws a ball off the back, it pushes the rocket in the other direction. Those tennis balls are like our ions.

How does the ion engine technology make space more accessible?

In two main ways: It is both safe and affordable. One of our first customers was Irvine High School [in Orange County, Calif.], so I could probably stop talking there! The technology is safe enough that even high school students can use this type of rocket. That’s very far from the case with anything that existed previously.

We use manufacturing techniques that are now ubiquitous and cheaper than before. That drives the cost of our engines down compared to more specialized types of engines of the past. And cheaper engines mean more people can afford to build them into their satellites or even build a whole satellite. So now the customer base isn’t just governments or Fortune 500 companies. It’s high schools and hobbyists and small companies.

Why do you think it is important to make space affordable and accessible to citizens?

I think it’s really important to democratize some of the information that we can learn about our planet and the people and animals living on it. Traditionally, that has been the domain of NASA and big companies like DigitalGlobe, which hold that type of information for only those who can pay for it, like the U.S. Department of Defense or financial institutions.

But small farmers can use that data to tell them how to run their farms and what their crop yields might look like. Or tribes in the Amazon can use that data to look at water levels and determine if they might need to prepare for a drought. So, information about our planet that is important and critical to people can and should be put into the hands of those people.

What do you love the most about what you do?

When I started working with the ion engine, I felt I could push the envelope of space propulsion. That was exciting. And now, what’s even more exciting to me is the opportunity to push humankind’s understanding of the universe forward. While the technology itself is cool, it can also enable more space exploration and interplanetary expeditions. I think it’s the unique intersection of those two things that I love most.

Also — and I wouldn’t have predicted this when I started on this career trajectory — the industry is changing so much and so quickly. Space is becoming more democratized and accessible, and I get to be right in the middle of it.

Are there technologies or technology trends — in your industry or others — that you are watching closely?

I’ve been following artificial intelligence, but more on the neuroscience side — our understanding of what intelligence actually is. Quantum computing is also interesting to me.

One of the things that I expect will change a lot, given the pace of technological change, is our ability to learn continuously throughout our lives. It’s already important and will become even more so. But I feel like we’re not doing online learning right, and that the curriculum in grades K-12 needs to be updated. Online learning must undergo a massive shift to support the need for lifelong learning, and I expect technology will play a big part in that evolution. I think that has wonderful implications for the future, so I’m keeping my eye on that.

How do you feel about winning the 2019 Emerging Technologist Abie Award?

It was a surprise! And it reminds me that I need to poke my head up from my work occasionally and remember that what we are doing here at Accion is meaningful beyond these walls — and to the whole world, hopefully.

The award also makes me think about everyone who has helped me along the journey. I’m thinking especially of the people who really went out of their way either financially or by donating their time or putting their neck on the line to let me stand on their shoulders, if you will. When I think about how these people believed in me, it really makes me feel like I’m coming into my own — that I’m at a place in my career where I can now do the same for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Thinking about the next generation, do you have any recommendations for up-and-coming women in tech?

From my own experience, one thing I’d say is that you shouldn’t act or be or think like anyone other than yourself. I’ve heard things like how I should take voice lessons to lower my voice or how I should act more aggressively. I chalked all that ‘advice’ up to people who meant well but couldn’t see how things were changing.

I think some of my unique differences that some people saw as disadvantages actually play to my benefit as a technologist and leader. So, my advice — for anyone pursuing a career in technology, really — is to embrace what makes you different. Explore those differences — don’t try to hide them.

Dr. Bailey will receive the 2019 Emerging Technologist Abie Award at the 2019 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC 19), the world’s largest gathering of women in tech, which will be Oct. 1-4 in Orlando, Fla.