Sky Bjel’s passion for aerospace started at a young age. In fact, she can’t recall a time when she wasn’t consumed by the idea of aerospace. “I remember looking up at the sky at birds and thinking, how can I fly?” she says.
Supported by her mother and grandmother and inspired by a grandfather in engineering, Bjel relished an eighth-grade assignment to create a wooden airplane and twelfth-grade class party to celebrate the Apollo 8 Mission. Her first taste of postsecondary options in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) came through a McMaster Engineering community outreach program for high school students.
“I loved learning about computer science, circuits and embedded systems and playing around with electronics and coding,” explains Bjel. “Meeting other girls my age interested in the same things and being mentored by older girls in the program was encouraging. I knew I wanted to go to McMaster for Engineering after that experience.”
Now in her fourth year of studies, Bjel credits the Faculty of Engineering’s flexible co-op program with allowing her to study and pursue her career goals simultaneously. She recently wrapped up a 16-month placement as a Robotics & Space Operations Software Engineer Intern at Canadian space technology company MDA.
“The co-op program is great. It shaped me in ways that books or theoretical knowledge could not,” says Bjel. “Getting hands-on experience in the space industry completely changed my perspective. There’s so much more to learn by living and working in that environment. Being able to have that experience as a student not only gives me a deeper understanding of the industry but also confirms that I am on the right path.”
Bjel’s involvement with aerospace clubs and teams on campus has also played an integral role in supporting her career goals. She founded and served as president of the McMaster Deep Space Analogue Research Expedition Team (DARE) and was former Co-Team Lead and Mission Specialist on the McMaster Experimental Reduced Gravity Team (MERGE).
This past year, Bjel was selected to represent Canada at the European Space Agency (ESA)‘s mission operations training course, the Ladybird Guide to Spacecraft Operations. She was one of 30 individuals from across the EU and other ESA-affiliated countries participating.
Continuing on a path as a young aviation and aerospace leader, Bjel has begun her own initiative to make the community she is proud to be a part of more inclusive.
Growing up with a prosthetic left arm below her elbow, she was inspired to create Project HERA (Humanoid Experimental Robot Arm). The project goal is to create a bionic arm for astronauts with prosthetics to help them perform essential functions required in orbit and maintenance tasks in space missions. The bionic arm would also be an asset to crew, helping fix elements of a space station that is unreachable by the Canadarm with more dexterity than a full human hand would have under a space suit.
“I have never had a moment of doubt about becoming an astronaut even though I didn’t see anyone who looked like me or experienced the same barriers,” Bjel says. “If anything, it has only driven me to help forge the way and explore different ways to do things to make aerospace more inclusive. My unique perspective is a powerful tool.”
Bjel’s efforts aren’t going unnoticed. In the summer, she was awarded the Hamilton International Airport Royal Canadian Air Force Foundation Scholarship. The award recognizes the excellence of postsecondary students in STEM who are leading the way as the next generation of aviation and aerospace leaders.
“Scholarships like this signal growth and positive change,” Bjel says. “The more opportunities and encouragement we give to young professionals and students who are interested in the aerospace industry, the more it will grow.”
As the young trailblazer rejoins campus this fall for her final year of study, Bjel’s invaluable life and industry lessons remain with her. Even the sky can’t limit this burgeoning aerospace leader.