I grew up being in love with outer space. Space was always part of my dreams. Growing up in the 90’s, space was everywhere, from television shows to the movies. I love all space tv shows and movies, from Star Trek to Star Wars, but the movie that really changed me was Apollo 13. This was when I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut. I loved that in this movie you get to see a true story unfolding. You see not only the astronauts but also the engineers working together to solve impossible problems. I was struck by the way the team worked together. The way that if you work as a team, you can achieve extraordinary things. You wouldn’t think that a little immigrant girl from Joliette, Quebec, would dream that they would end up one day doing this—working in aerospace. It's like dreaming about being a rockstar. We all have those dreams, but they don’t come true for many and when it does it doesn’t happen overnight.
Other people can influence you a lot when you’re younger. When you are good at school as a girl, like I was, a lot of people will tell you, “oh, you should be a teacher, doctor or a lawyer.” They don’t really tell you to become an engineer and work in IT. It wasn’t until I was around 16 or 17 years old that I decided that aerospace engineering was what I really wanted to do. This is around the age that you need to decide what you want to do in CEGEP, so there were people around me helping me with my future career choices.
I remember this one woman said to me after I told her that I wanted to become an aerospace engineer, “Well, Farah, I’m not sure if you’re going to succeed in that field. It's a field dominated by men. I don't know if there's going to be a place for you.” This was coming from someone in authority, so yet again, someone else saying that I could not do it. Luckily I had more of a rebellious side to me at that age, so I thought to myself that I will show that woman that I could do it.
I ended up attending Cambridge University in England, which was not an easy ride. At that time, only 20% of the student population were women. Not only that, but if you look at the socio-economical make-up of that university, it's a very large school with people from very known families. I was from the middle of nowhere, and growing up was kind of rough. I found it a little difficult to adjust to university at first, but I ended up finding my place.
I completed my Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which was an amazing experience. During my time at MIT, I completed three internships at NASA, two of which were at the Jet Propulsion Lab, where I currently work. During the first internship, I had at the Jet Propulsion Lab, I fell in love. I did a lot of internships during my studies, and these were the last two in the background. It was in the summer of 2012 that I did the internship there. Then it was the summer when we landed Curiosity on Mars, which was the old automobile that we landed, then it really struck me. I thought, wow, I want to work here.
We are going to Mars to understand the place of humans in the Universe, to understand where we come from, where life began, understand why the Earth is the way it is and how the Earth has evolved, and how the other planets have evolved. The Perseverance mission, which was our second mission that landed on Mars, is when Insight landed. Insight studied the interior of Mars so that we could get an understanding of how the planet evolved and answer questions such as why there was no magnetic field etc. The Perseverance mission was to understand if there was life on Mars. Around 3.5 billion years ago, Mars looked like the Earth—there was an atmosphere, there was liquid water, and there was a magnetic field. But at that time, here on Earth, it was the beginning of life. So we ask ourselves, "If there was life here, is it possible that there was also life on Mars at that time?” So that's what we're going to do with the mission.
I always think about how we, as engineers, are the ones who build the world that we all live in. It's us. The world that you see around you, engineers made it, and more women need to have a seat at this table. Women need to be there helping to build the world around us. What I often tell a young woman is a bit of my story. It's really up to you to find out what your passion is, what your dream is and to make that passion your work. It's such a beautiful thing to be able to work in a field where you’re understood and have the passion for doing what you do all day. It’s not going to be easy, it's never easy, but if you go with what you love, do what you’ve dreamed about it. I always said that for every yes or every success that I’ve had, there have been ten failures. Failing is natural, and failing gives you the opportunity to learn. It's something normal. You just have to keep going for it.
Take your dream, go for it, and then put all your effort into it, all your energy, because there's nobody that's going to give it to you, but it's really worth it to succeed. I know this because I live it, and it's extraordinary.