Cool Satellites and Space Talks: Katie Gwozdecky


It’s not every day that I get to learn about a new club or initiative on campus, but whenever I do, it’s always such a fantastic experience. This week, I got to know Katie Gwozdecky, a mechanical engineering student who is one of the leads for the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT). Currently, on her professional experience year (PEY), her love and passion for all things space were amazing to hear about. It was a fantastic experience to hear about her and her team’s work at UTAT and I truly can’t wait to see what’s to come in the near future.

We met at the Second Cup on College street and got to know her a little bit as this had been my first ever in-person conversation with her:


“So I’m on PEY right now, I work at a biomedical engineering company called Synaptive Medical. I’m working/designing hardware for a robotic arm assistant to neurosurgery. I’ve been able to do a lot more work than I thought and I’ve only been there for five months so it’s so cool. But I’m also the lead for University of Toronto Aerospace Team in the space systems division. We’re building a small satellite, this is our third year working on it [...] and hoping to get it launched in 2019! “


Being that I had never really known too much about UTAT since one of my friends had introduced me to a bit of it, I was genuinely curious about how it worked:


“UTAT is its own design team, and it’s five divisions. It’s the largest design team on campus with over a hundred members divided into five teams, so space systems, rocketry, unmanned aerial vehicles, and aerial robotics, which are the design teams, and then we have outreach division; they host the Toronto Students For The Advancement of Aerospace Conference every year.

I’ve been a part of UTAT since first year and it’s one of those things where once you’re a part of it’s a very tight-knit community of people. I’m the head of the space systems division, and every division has its own lead and then we’re headed as a whole by an executive team, so there’s an executive director and then there’s a management portfolio person and a social media person.”

But how did UTAT start?


“Ever since we started space systems, it was a team of rocketry students that wanted to be a part of this Canadian Satellite Design challenge [...] and so we realized there’s a bunch of teams across Canada that do this and it’s a great opportunity to learn how to design something for space. Many of us that joined UTAT are already interested in space, so we joined rocketry, but to have the opportunity to start a team and to actually be designing something for space is a huge opportunity especially as an undergrad.

That was something I was really drawn by is that feeling of “holy crap, I’m in second year, I can do this”. There was six of us so we divided ourselves among subsystems. Everyone sort of had a lean in and I was like “I’m in second year Mech, I just started, I don’t know what I’m doing!”. That was really scary, to not know anything and be expected to design the thermal protection mechanisms for the satellite, it’s crazy. Things sort of align properly when you know you’re working on the right thing for you. I don’t find school the most stimulating thing, personally, but when I’m working on this, it's what I wanna do.”


Being an architecture student, I was curious about their reach and the general population of the team, whether it was all just engineers and rocketry students or not:


“UTAT is open to everybody at UofT, grad students, undergrad, any discipline. We actually have half of our leads for aerospace systems that are not in engineering. We have a bio team, like seven or eight people that do gene-tagging and stasis and experimental design, they’re amazing. We also have math students, physics students, and they’re a part of my team and it’s so great. Having that kind of diversity is really uncommon.

We have tons of positions, it just kinda depends on what you want to learn, because your background doesn’t actually matter. Nobody really learns this stuff in school. Even if you’re in engineering, you may be able to pick up the concepts easier than, say, an arts student if you don’t have the background of calculus or whatever but when it comes down to it, anybody can learn to do this stuff if they wanted to so we’re open to everyone. Generally, we have, like, business students join our sponsorships, marketing parts of our team but anyone can do the role they want.”


Katie had mentioned that the team had recently changed very recently, and she explained how establishing team culture was very important when being a lead for the team:


“I came into the team with experience of the last two years and all of my leads haven’t been through the competition before so I think that was something I knew I had to bring [...], so I thought “what are the things I can do to help my team?” so strictly defining team culture. That’s not really something I’ve seen in many undergrad teams, so we sat down with each person and asked them “How do you work best? Do you work best alone, do you work best in teams? How can I support you to do your best work?” and the answers would be like “nag me!” or “leave me alone!” or “ask me how I’m doing personally”, like those kinds of things so people feel like they’re cared for all the time and I think that becomes really important as well as taking time in meetings to joke around and get to know each other as friends. When a team works well together it feels really good and they have so much energy and passion it’s what keeps me coming back is because they love the project and it’s contagious, so things like that pick me up after a bad day which is great.

In school, when you’re on like a project with someone, I’ve noticed that bitterness and resentment can come up pretty quickly whereas if you do the hard work in the beginning and get to know each other not only as like "co-workers" but also as people, it makes things so much easier down the line when you have to approach someone about missing a deadline or something. Instead of getting mad and yelling at them you can be like “hey what’s up?” and you care about their well-being and not only about delivering the project.”


Being interested in space is awesome, but was it something that she had always wanted to do? How did that affect her choice in study at the University of Toronto?


“I always knew what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to do is design things for space but I wasn’t really sure how I would get there. There aren’t that many programs that offer space design as an undergrad. It’s not only just space design alone, I’m interested in whether it’s satellites or helping humans whether it’s on a spacecraft or life support systems. I’ve been very interested in that particular area, developing vehicles in space or habitats for humans for long durations.

[...] I came into undergrad having done robotics in high school and did a bunch of sort of side experiments and projects, but I knew I had to find something else and that was where UTAT came in. I joined rocketry and we spent hours and hours doing engine tests and launching a giant eleven-foot tall rocket and I guess those were the things I found meaningful kinds of experiences. I know everyone can sort of find their thing, and this is definitely my thing.

To me, I find school is a good way for me to get familiar with concepts, I find that I’m able to learn concepts faster than I did previously but the best part is when I can go home and work on the things I love. That’s the stuff that really keeps me continuing in school because, y’know, I can’t really get anywhere without finishing my degree!”  


With a cool team like this, I had wondered how she found out about it, and I guessed the clubs fair:


“Yeah, the clubs fair, like I showed up and I saw the giant rocket and was like “Okay, yup, sign me up”. But yeah I knew this was something I wanted to do and I never had too much trouble finding it. Along the way I play intramural hockey, I do yoga, intramural water polo, the little things that keep me sane.”


I asked her whether being in a team with the ratio between men and women skewed towards men affected the culture of the team in any way:


“No, it doesn’t matter. Like I’ve been lucky enough to have any particularly notable experiences like that, but I think we’ve been lucky enough on our team and with the people who have stayed really respect each other because we respect each other for not only our knowledge and our motivation but our ability to work really hard and I think it comes out when all of us have contributed to a document or something and we can say “hey this is fantastic thank you to all of you for your hard work”

[...] There definitely could be more female presence in UTAT as a whole, and it’s growing, and I’m not really sure where that comes from or how it happens but I will say I don’t think it’s a problem with UTAT culture. I think it’s more where engineering itself is inherently male, and we’re a team based out of engineering so we’re gonna have a similar distribution whereas half of our team as I’ve said is arts and science, so I would like to further advertise our team to those kinds of groups of people because that’s how we’re inherently going to get those kinds of people.”