Infinite Careers is a new collaboration between Career Services (CAPD) and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision making. Read profiles of alumni with unique career paths, hear their stories and network at a series of talks.
San Diego State University, BS Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, 2008
Duke University, MS Mechanical Engineering, 2011
MIT PhD AeroAstro, minor in Technology and Public Policy, 2014
Dr. Natalya Bailey is the CEO and co-founder at Accion Systems, which provides in-space propulsion engines for satellites and spacecraft. An Oregon native, Dr. Bailey completed her doctorate in space propulsion at the Space Propulsion Laboratory at MIT where she helped invent the first working prototype of an ion engine technology for small satellites, which would become the first product at Accion.
Prior to MIT, she invented a new chemical rocket technology that she turned into a space startup. Dr. Bailey also has an M.S. from Duke University and a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from San Diego State University. She sits on the Board of Youth CITIES, when she mentors middle and high school students on entrepreneurship and community building.
For her contributions to entrepreneurship and the space industry, Dr. Bailey has been awarded Forbes “30 Under 30”, MIT Tech Review’s “Innovator Under 35” and Women in Aerospace's Initiative, Inspiration and Impact Award.
What influenced your choice of undergraduate major? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?
My choice of undergraduate major goes back to when I was a child. I grew up in Oregon and had a trampoline in my backyard. I would spend hours lying on it gazing at the stars thinking a lot about aliens and how there has to be other life, given all the stars out there. I also enjoyed math and had a knack for it. My high school guidance counselor suggested combining my interests in math and outer space by studying aerospace. I started my academic journey at San Diego State in aerospace engineering and it culminated in a PhD from MIT in AeroAstro. I knew I wanted to work professionally on a new aspect of in-space propulsion for a long time. That started at MIT where I was fortunate to meet my co-founder Louis Perna. My academic career led me directly to where I am today at Accion.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently or more of while you were at MIT?
I really enjoyed my minor, Technology and Public Policy, and wish I had taken more classes outside of AeroAstro.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
What I didn’t know when I started is that the industry would change so much. Today I’m right in the middle of a transition toward commercial space, which I find very exciting and rewarding. Preparation and passion are critical to where I am today, but there’s a bit of luck in the fact that #NewSpace is taking off.
What motivates you to do the work that you do?
There’s a great deal more we can learn about our own planet by sending more satellites into orbit. The combination of more smallsats and artificial intelligence, for example, is already uncovering new insights about poverty distribution, crop yield potential, climate change, and more. Thinking further ahead, I believe the survival of our species is going to require that we have the means to live off-planet. While that may eventually mean other planets, I can also see strong potential in space stations or some combination of both.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your career? How have you managed or overcome it?
Growing up, the assumed gender roles for my brother and I were evident when something needed to be repaired, as an example, he was the one tasked to help or was shown how to do it. I made it all the way to graduate school without any tinkering or hands on experience with building. When I went to grad school I had to move away from the more theoretical work and had to build and test experiments. I had a big learning curve, but I signed up for classes, found mentors for support and gained experience that way.
Making decisions, especially important-feeling career decisions, can be challenging. What strategies have you used to make career decisions?
I don’t pretend to know everything already about my business or career. I surround myself with mentors and have reached out to them frequently at all stages of my career and will continue to do so.
What professional development experiences or opportunities shaped your early career?
As an undergrad student, I started and led the SDSU chapter of Sigma Gamma Tau (aerospace honor society). I ran a NASA program in grad school and had a leadership role at GA3 in the MIT AeroAstro program. I also participated in business plan competitions. Throughout my academic and professional career, I have mentored others and volunteered which introduced me to wonderful people.
What professional development activities do you find useful these days?
I believe in lifelong learning and am constantly challenging myself to learn new things. Recently, I learned the programming language Go. I take online classes, read or listen to books for leadership development and management, talk to experts, and attend workshops, which are plentiful in the Boston area.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
Find a peer group or community that you can join. They can help you learn how to synthesize the advice you receive from others and be a sounding board for all kinds of issues.
What career advice do you have for current MIT students, or those interested in entering your industry?
My best advice is to dive in and take some chances. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, knowing you can always ask for help when you need it.
Do you have any tips for networking or job searching for current students and recent graduates?
Stay on the mailing lists and attend talks and events you find interesting. Keeping plugged into the community has been really rewarding.
What do you like to do outside of work for fun/relaxation/inspiration?
I have a two-year-old daughter and a husband with a pilot’s license, so there’s lots of adventure and inspiration just spending time with my family.
Do you participate in any volunteer/community service activities? If so, how do you balance your professional and personal responsibilities?
I am passionate about giving back to the community. I volunteer with and am now a board member with Youth CITIES (http://youthcities.org). Based in Boston, Youth CITIES helps middle and high school students to bring change to their community by applying entrepreneurial principles and creative problem-solving skills..