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Vanessa Van Decker named recipient of Brooke Owens Fellowship

Fourth-year mechanical engineering student’s journey in robotics and aerospace leads to her prestigious internship at Zipline Robotics.
March 24, 2023

Vanessa Van Decker is one of only three Canadians ever selected for the Brooke Owens Fellowship.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the Brooke Owens Fellowship (external link)  was established to continue the inspiring legacy of D. Brooke Owens, who helped to advance gender equality and diversity in the aerospace industry. The esteemed non-profit program provides paid internships, mentorship, and networking opportunities to exceptional undergraduate women and gender-minority students in aerospace. Chosen from almost 1000 applicants, Vanessa Van Decker earned her spot as one of the 47 students selected for the Brooke Owens Fellowship Class of 2023. 

As a Brooke Owens Fellow, Van Decker is excited to work at California-based company, Zipline Robotics this summer. Van Decker will be a Mechanical Engineering Intern on the Test Engineering Team for Structures, Mechanisms, and Integration, where she will get hands-on experience designing mechanisms for testing.  

Van Decker’s journey to robotics began when she joined her high school robotics team. She loved the concept of building robots, taking them apart, and putting them back together. Contrary to its mathematical appearance, Van Decker sees engineering as a creative pursuit. “Being creative isn’t always just having an innovative solution. It’s also asking a creative question, having really good insight, or being able to see a problem from a new perspective that maybe no one else has looked at it from,” she said. 

Continuing to follow her love for all things robotics, Van Decker chose to study mechanical engineering at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). Through the President’s Entrance Scholarship, Van Decker was able to gain valuable experience in robotics research. Before her first semester, she was a research assistant for mechanical & industrial engineering professor, Dr. Farrokh Janabi-Sharifi, where she worked on cardiac catheter robotics.

Beyond the classroom, Van Decker channels her passion for robotics through community leadership. She has been an active member of the Toronto MetRobotics (external link)  student team, founding the Media and Outreach Team, and serving as Mechanical Chassis Lead and Science Team Project Manager. Her contributions were recognized with the TMU Exceptional Leader Award.

Van Decker with the Mars rover on the TorontoMet Robotics student team.

Van Decker’s passion for robotics also launched her into the exciting world of aerospace. She had the opportunity to deepen her understanding of space applications as a recipient of the Zenith Fellowship (external link)  in 2022. Through this Fellowship, Van Decker interned at Mission Control where she worked on lunar rovers and orbital robotics. After completing her internship, she joined Mission Control part-time, which she continues to support remotely.

Van Decker in the moonyard with Mission Control’s lunar rover.

In addition to her work at Mission Control, Van Decker explores her interest in space robotics at SEDS Canada (external link)  (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space). Starting out as Events Chair, Vanessa has since risen to become SEDS Canada’s current President. It was through SEDS Canada that Vanessa actually discovered the Brooke Owens Fellowship. While the Fellowship was highly-competitive and involved a rigorous application process, she was up for the challenge.

Although Van Decker was not selected upon her first application, this year she believes that showcasing her multitudinous self is what set her apart from other Fellowship applicants. She also credits TMU mechanical and industrial engineering professor,Dr. Donatus Oguamanam, for his invaluable guidance during her application. “I really appreciated that mentorship when I was going through the process,” she said. She would also like to thank her professors Alan Machin, Mark Argo, Joseph Amankrah, Dr. Frankie Stewart, Dr. Filippo A. Salustri, and Dr. Marcello Papini for their support and encouragement with her applications.

Van Decker values paying forward the mentorship she received from her professors to her fellow peers. She believes that one’s academic journey is a marathon, not a sprint. She encourages students to take their time and stretch out their courses if needed. Van Decker also recommends getting involved in a complete project build. “There is a big difference in making something, and having to make it to completion,” she said. 

In addition, Van Decker encourages other students to leverage TMU resources, like the First-Year Engineering Office study halls and the Women in Engineering Mentorship Program (external link) . For other women in STEM, Van Decker encourages them to find their champions, and support colleagues who share similar experiences. 

Looking ahead, Van Decker is excited to move to San Francisco this summer, meet industry leaders, and work with a cohort of women and gender minorities who are passionate, driven, and multitalented. She also looks forward to attending a week-long summit in Washington D.C. for professional development and networking. As a Brooke Owens Fellow, Van Decker is keen to get matched with an executive-level mentor. “Getting to have that mentor is really going to help me see what’s out there, be aware of the possibilities, and learn from experience,” she said. 

Wherever Van Decker’s incredible journey takes her next, one thing remains clear, “Any day that I get to work with robotics is a good day,” she says.