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Interview with the Organizers of Our Giant Leap Hackathon

2nd edition of international competition comes to Montreal

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On October 29, the Daily sat down with organizers of Our Giant Leap Hackathon, which took place on October 28 and 29 at McGill. The hackathon, run by the Diversity and Gender Equality Project Group of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC), asks participants to study the role of space technology in solving global gender disparities. The Daily spoke with organizers Nathan Schilling, Sobia Nadeem, and Yulia Akisheva about the importance of the SGAC and the hackathon, as well as their outlooks on diversity in the aerospace industry.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Andrei Li for The McGill Daily (MD): Could you tell me more about the Space Generation Advisory Council?

Sobia Nadeem (SN): SGAC is an international organization made up of young space technology professionals. It’s free to become a member, and you can get more involved by applying to project groups: sustainable policy, aerospace research, etc. Several of our working groups have the opportunity to present at the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space [COPUOS]. People involved in SGAC also regularly publish their work at conferences, such as the International Astronautical Congress. The SGAC gives you the insight and ability to contribute to space technology at an earlier stage of your career.

MD: Could you tell me more about the history of how this hackathon came about?

SN: The hackathon falls under the umbrella of our Giant Leap Initiative for gender equality in STEM. Our event is just before the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs [UNOOSA] Space4Women conference happening this week in Montreal. The hackathon is not directly affiliated with the conference, but it does give a taste of what it’ll talk about. In our hackathon, students get exposure to outer space and space exploration under the hackathon theme: this year, supporting women and gender minorities in remote communities.

Yulia Akisheva (YA): The idea started with a conference in Toulouse, France, with a local event focused on women in space. We built on that event — published articles, did outreach, kept in touch with the space community — and we ended up going to South Korea in 2022. Our mission was inspired by The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates: empowering women to shape their own futures. The hackathon is only one of our many projects that focus on this topic.

Nathan Schilling (NS): The hackathon grew out of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in eliminating the gender gap in science. We’re focused on getting more women into space, into STEM, and using space tech to support women worldwide. Our first hackathon, in Daejeon, South Korea, ended with the winning team being able to propose an idea and actually begin to commercialize it. Our overall goal is to get more women, minorities, and youth into STEM.

MD: Broadly, what are the objectives of the Our Giant Leap Hackathon?

NS: Our objectives are twofold. First, to get teams to find solutions to the gender gap through space technologies. This year, we’re looking at leveraging space technologies to support remote communities worldwide. Second, to get career developments for hackers — networking with mentors, industry specialists, and fellow hackers. We’re really invested in the international dimension — getting hackers connected and fostering opportunities for global collaboration.

MD: How did you, personally, get involved with the SGAC?

SN: I was previously a director for SEDS [Students for the Exploration and Development of Space]. I loved the work I was doing, but I wanted to have a greater impact on the international scale, and SGAC gave me that opportunity.

NS: My ex-girlfriend faced a lot of sexism in the space industry, and I really felt a need to address this issue. When I learned of the SGAC and the hackathon, I thought: here’s an opportunity to work on an issue I care about.

MD: What were the most challenging aspects of organizing this hackathon? The most rewarding?

NS: The most challenging part of this was adjusting to Montreal. I work in logistics, and there was a disparity between previous, structured events where you knew where everyone would go to lunch, for instance, and this new event of the hackathon, which is less structured and has more uncertainty, in a new city for me. The most rewarding part was serving breakfast, serving lunch, getting to meet all these talented hackers: helping people with small actions.

SN: I previously organized events for the Canadian space sector — it was really familiar and I knew the lay of the land when it came to reaching out to Canadian professionals. In SGAC, I had a very different experience on the international team, so it’s been a challenge and a learning experience. This hackathon has been very rewarding, especially with attracting an international audience, we even have a team participating from the European Space Agency. It was very fruitful to showcase the Canadian space sector to international teams.

People don’t think too much about Canada when it comes to space. It’s unfortunate, because at conferences we stick together and are really tight-knit. It’s great having people come to our turf. Everyone is very supportive, and it’s really easy to build new bonds.

MD: What advice would you have for youth who want to get into STEM, but aren’t sure how they would want to?

YA: Join a network, go to events, and talk to people. Don’t hesitate to reach out in a meaningful way to people you are inspired by. The SGAC is a good resource: we’re the largest group of young space professionals globally, affiliated with the UN, with 160 countries represented through 25,000 members. You will be able to find someone, whether it be a sponsor or a mentor: it’s much easier than it seems. Do a project — hackathon, design competition, building a model rocket, anything.

SN: One thing that’s really daunting is that in STEM, there might not seem to be many role models you relate to. Echoing what Yulia said, it’s very important to reach out, find people who have walked your paths in life and share your perspectives. I got into space through mentorship; I failed two of my courses in my first year and put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself. Through support, I discovered that school is just a tool to get you where you want to be. Failure is another part of life: use it to get you where you want to be. You don’t have to be at the top of your class to succeed.

NS: First, find people who you can connect with in terms of interests and identity. Reach out! Don’t be afraid to cold call, cold email, cold connect through Linkedin and so on. It’s really easy nowadays with technology. Be genuine with your passion, show that you care, and ask for advice. Often, you’ll have a long-term partnership develop. Courses aren’t everything — getting straight As isn’t enough. You’ll get more mileage by joining projects, doing research, and getting hands-on experience in the fields you want to work in. Get exposure and experience, because in the end, that’s the most important part.