Aerospace Engineer Zainab Saleem: Satellites, Women’s Empowerment and STEM

8 min read

Aerospace Engineer Zainab Saleem: Satellites, Women’s Empowerment and STEM

Overcoming obstacles to develop and launch satellites is about the personal journeys of those involved, as much as it is about developing world-first technologies in cross-disciplinary teams.

Make impossible possible – a statement that defines ICEYE’s culture that shapes the way we work and communicate every day at this organization. Achieving things that were unthinkable before lies in the core of ICEYE business, thanks to the high performance and motivation of our teams. We love acknowledging the accomplishments of our employees, and we want to share them with the world.

Meet Zainab Saleem, Aerospace Engineer. In recognition of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we had a chat with Zainab about her experiences in working at ICEYE and the importance of support for women and girls who want to work in STEM fields.

Let’s start from the basics, what type of work do you do at ICEYE?

“I work in the spacecraft engineering department, in the team of spacecraft analysis. I work in the area of design, development, testing and verification for key subsystems for satellites, and I also work on ground track acquisition, orbital maneuver planning and in-orbit execution. My responsibilities here also include subsystem support for satellite missions.”

What has been a key memorable moment for you at ICEYE?

“I think that my most memorable and enjoyable moments at ICEYE are LEOPs, which are the launch and early orbit phases. A LEOP is a very exciting moment when you understand that you, together with your team, have been working for several months to build the system, spending countless hours and resolving all arising situations. And then the satellite goes to a launcher, and it’s finally in space!”

“At that particular moment, everybody’s at our offices and we’re waiting for the satellite’s first signal. We’re waiting for this signal to be healthy, waiting for the first telemetry. And when it comes, there are cheers, claps, people are smiling! And when you look at them, it’s such a beautiful twinkle in everyone's eyes! I really love these moments. That’s my absolute favorite.”

How has ICEYE helped you in your professional development?

“ICEYE is a very fast-paced NewSpace company. We are really trying to achieve the impossible. The time frame in which we build and launch satellites to serve our customers is relatively short, we work very fast. Of course, with such fast-paced development, the learning curve is exponential. You get to learn a lot of new things.”

“Although I've worked with CubeSats and other unmanned systems before, I gained my most significant microsatellite design and development experience at ICEYE. The experience and skills that I have acquired at ICEYE have been very useful and rewarding. I’ve been working in research and development after my studies, but the unique advantage of the fast-paced development of ICEYE is that it gives you an insight into the entire design and operational cycle of a satellite, and this is very valuable.”

“ICEYE's experience has been very instrumental in shaping my PhD research which I started last year. Since then I have a flexible agreement with ICEYE to contribute when needed. I like the fact that everyone at ICEYE encouraged and supported me tremendously to follow my passion and continue studying, in addition to contributing to the company's overall mission.”


Zainab Saleem speaking at Vytah Space Industry Conference, 2019.

What is unique about ICEYE?

“Definitely ICEYE's culture which is very open and diverse. If you bring a viable idea to the team, you can do it and then test it very rapidly. This kind of provision and freedom at work might not be encouraged in some other workplaces. Here at ICEYE people love good ideas and are willing to take risks, and they are open to experiment and reiterate fast which makes the work environment very unique. This is why we are very progressive as a NewSpace company.”

“The team at ICEYE is also very diverse with people from all around the globe. I believe that to learn and experience the world, you must travel. But the best alternative to travelling is to be in a place where you get to meet people from different places and cultures. And we have that at ICEYE, people from more than 30 different countries work here together!”

Could you share your experience on how you personally empower and support women and girls who want to pursue engineering careers?

“My personal opinion is that there is a gender disparity in STEM fields around the globe. In my fields of aerospace and robotics, I’ve seen very few women leaders. There is a small number of female leadership examples, professional role models or support networks in these areas. This is why I am a strong advocate of encouraging and supporting other women to pursue and excel in science and technology careers.”

“During my time at the Institute of Space Technology in Pakistan, we were only two female faculty members in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. We worked actively to support and encourage female students. I was a member of the need-based scholarships selection committee in the institute where female students are given preference. I held special sessions with female students to address their issues and problems, and also worked for the internship placement and employment of female graduates of the institute.”

“I think that my role in helping other women increased when I was selected for the TechWomen program, initiated by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). The idea of the program is to empower, connect and support women in STEM fields. I am a TechWomen alumna and I actively participate in delegation trips, webinars, online forums and other alumnae activities for this community, where women support other women to achieve their dreams.”

“During my fellowship in 2017, my team won the TechWomen seed grant for an impact project that you can develop in your own country. With these funds, we founded the non-profit organization “She for Tech”, which addresses the gender gap in science and technology in Pakistan. We strategically target middle and high school girls. We started our efforts by arranging after school activities like camps, competitions and career counselling for girls from public schools in the cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Also, under the TechWomen program, I volunteered to participate in a delegation trip to Uzbekistan last year. The delegation trip included robotics sessions, entrepreneurship training, idea pitching workshops and many other activities organized in schools and universities.”

“As a part of STEM outreach activities, I worked as a robotics instructor at a summer camp to design, build and program mobile and manipulator robots at St. Paul American School in Hanoi, Vietnam. Currently, I mentor and teach a group of girls in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan striving to build the country’s first CubeSat mission. I give these training sessions biweekly as a webinar. I will visit them for onsite workshops this year in June – can’t wait for it!”


Zainab Saleem at ICEYE with her collegue Matthias Bergmann.

What advice would you give to women and girls who are about to start their career or studies in the aerospace industry?

“I want to say to all the girls: please, don't do it because you are good at it, do it because you love it. No one is good at anything in the beginning – these are skills that you learn and acquire through hardwork and perseverance. Don't let the opinions of others and standard examinations define what you want to be in life.”

“I am an aerospace engineer but I didn't get the best score in all related courses during my studies. I couldn't understand half of the things back then. But I pursued it because I absolutely loved it. It simply lifts me up to work with it. Am I good at it? I don't know. Do I find it hard? Most of the time. Do I love it? Absolutely!”

“So, to all the girls, if you end up joining an area that you believe will be hard and there won't be many others like you, you may feel scared. It is okay. Do it with fear, do it with doubt, do it with a hundred questions in your mind. Things will fall into place – just keep going forward and you will find your niche.”

“And please, when you see fear and doubt in somebody’s eyes, be the person who says “Hey, it’s going to be okay. Don’t be the person who kills the dream.”


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