Zenith Canada Pathways launches Canada’s first space fellowship

Credit: Zenith Canada Pathways Foundation.

The Zenith Canada Pathways Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, was unveiled in mid-February with the express purpose of developing and retaining highly qualified personnel in Canada’s aerospace industry.

The newly created foundation was publicly launched on February 13th co-hosted by the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) and the following day during a keynote and panel at the SEDS Canada’s Ascension 2021 conference.

To achieve the foundations purpose, Zenith Canada created the inaugural Zenith Fellowship Program. The Zenith Fellowship aims to connect students and young professionals with work-integrated learning opportunities and a community of industry mentors and advisors. Modelled after successful US-based programs, such as the Brooke Owens Fellowship and the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship, the program seeks to support the sustainable growth of space talent in Canada. 

As a not-for-profit organization, Zenith Canada Pathways Foundation is led by a voluntary team of individuals in industry and academia across Canada. The leadership team of Zenith Canada comprises Tahir Merali, a space industry executive, Hira Nadeem, a graduate student and Canada’s first Brooke Owens Fellow, and Zaid Rana, a science mission and systems specialist. I was able to sit down with co-founders Tahir Merali and Hira Nadeem to chat about the Fellowship program and what to expect. 

What is the Zenith Fellowship Program?

Tahir: The Fellowship is the flagship program of the Zenith Canada Pathways Foundation and is a national merit-based professional development program. It includes a bespoke mentoring program for students and early career professionals seeking work experience, providing them a solid foundation to springboard their career. All the founding members of the Zenith Foundation had to leave Canada to chase a career in space and build expertise – many of us came back to Canada and a lot of us have not. This is a critical issue for talent development and the future of the aerospace sector in Canada. The decades old problem has also been highlighted in the Emerson report in 2012 which called for professional development of youth. We saw successful models with the Brooke Owens, Matthew Isakowitz and Patti Grace Smith Fellowships in the US and realized that there was a need to implement a similar program in Canada. 

Why is this program important?

Hira: Going through my career as an electrical engineer looking for jobs in the Canadian space industry, access to information was not easy. I had to look for opportunities to elevate myself, which involved a lot of networking. I recognize I had the privilege to take time off classes and drive to Ottawa for the Canadian Space Summit for example, but not everyone can do that. My experience with the Brooke Owens Fellowship in the US provided professional development and mentorship opportunities in the global space sector which were crucial. This experience led me to create the Zenith Canada Fellowship, to motivate other students and show them that there are opportunities to participate in exciting projects in Canada as well. 

Tahir: Here in Canada, having worked in both private and public sectors (in aerospace and otherwise), I realized not much focus is put on the importance of professional development and facilitating growth of new, homegrown talent. It is well known that in the last 5 years, there is a large generational gap that is growing. Those involved and invested in providing heritage in space are retiring and that knowledge is not being distilled or passed down efficiently enough to support incoming folks in the sector. In the last couple of years, the ‘State of the Canadian Space Sector’ report has consistently shown that the Canadian space workforce level was maintained at nearly 10,000 jobs and that number has not grown much, even though there has been growth in small and medium enterprises. These enterprises need the talent to grow and Zenith Canada wants to contribute to developing the resources to retain Canadian talent. Another important point is that the network created through a program of early career professionals, results in relationships developing organically which will create a stronger sector overall. 

What can we expect in terms of structure and timeline? 

Tahir: The Fellowship will be successful based on the partnerships we make with host organizations as well as strategic partners, to help communicate opportunities and increase accessibility. We want to ensure that equity, inclusion and diversity objectives across geography, gender, cultural background, identity, and other parameters are met. Over the next 6 weeks, we will be onboarding host organizations that will make an early commitment to take on the first set of Zenith fellows. In terms of timeline, the application process will open in fall 2021, with screening conducted by the selection committee, and successful finalists (called fellows) matched with host organizations and external mentors. The program will begin for the first class of fellows in January 2022, with a networking summit in the summer of 2022.

What are you looking for in applicants?

Hira: We seek passionate individuals from diverse, multi-disciplinary backgrounds (within or outside the space sector). The eligibility requirements will be published before summer this year so that people can get an idea of what we are looking for and so we target the right candidates – students and new graduates. 

To conclude our conversation, Tahir and Hira highlighted that the Foundation is actively seeking prospective host organizations and strategic partners interested in engaging with the Zenith Fellowship to enable equitable, diverse, and inclusive internship opportunities Canada-wide. The organization can be contacted at [email protected]

Disclaimer – Mariam Naseem is an advisor for the Zenith Canada Pathways Foundation.

About Mariam Naseem

Is the National Point of Contact for Canada at Space Generation Advisory Council and an advisor for the Zenith Canada Pathways Foundation. Mariam has a background in engineering and business with interests spanning commercial human spaceflight, emerging technologies, and more.

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