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  • Writer's pictureEmily Shepherdson

Failure is not an option, or is it?

Perfection seems to be the dream, but is it a reality? Read on to hear how failure helped shape who I am today and how you can use it as a step in a journey to reach for the stars.

Coming out of a fantastic weekend speaking at Camp Engies, I just had to write my first {EM}otivation post. I have so many topics I want to cover in this category and have been having a hard time deciding where to start, but the inspiration I got from the councillors and young ladies at Camp Engies launched this topic into first place!

Camp Engies is a camp designed to inspire girls in Grade 6-8 to connect and unleash their potential in engineering. The camp combined engineering with outdoor activities, creativity and of course some friendly competition.

When I was first asked to speak at Camp Engies by founder Cassondra Fonseca, I said yes without hesitation. As I was preparing my talking points and trying to channel my inner pre-teen to make sure my topic would resonate with them, I came to a terrifying revelation; these girls could devour me.

I have spoken to high school students before, but the middle school age group is unique in that they are already very smart, clever and able to understand and develop their own conclusions but they also have the unprejudiced and candid demeanour that accompany youth on their side - there will be no filter.

This is where the theme of my speech was born: failure.

I was going to do my best to present an inspiring story and teach them about something I am passionate about KNOWING that it may not reach every single one of them. It could just be off the mark entirely, BUT I was ok with that because, whatever the outcome, I can take the experience and learn from it. One thing I knew for sure, my speech was most definitely and undeniably not going to be perfect. With perfection out of the picture I decided to go with good old-fashioned authenticity and honesty (not that I was planning to lie before...).



Setting up the stage!

My name is Emily and when I grow up I STILL want to be an Astronaut!

Raise your hand if you've ever been to space? (raises hand...) ok, well I haven't ACTUALLY been to space, only in the simulations I run and, in my dreams 🙂

Does anyone here want to go to space? Why? Seeing the Earth from above would be an unreal experience, floating around in a weightless environment looks super fun and, in order to get there you get to go really fast in a rocket... honestly curiosity is what drives my desire to go to Space, it would be physically and mentally challenging and there is still so much to learn. One thing I know for sure is that no one is getting there without a lot of hard work.

First, I'm going to give you a little bit of my background and share some stories of my journey so far, mistakes I've made and lessons I've learned and then I'll end with an example of a how robotic system works and how I am using it to progress technology for space robots and the journey of getting humans to Mars!

I am doing my PhD in aerospace engineering working on systems that control how spacecraft operate. Basically, I am going to be a space doctor but for robots instead of humans! Doing a PhD means that I knowingly signed up for another 4-6 years of schooling because I wanted to. I already did 4 years of University education, in engineering, and at that point I thought I was never going back to school again. I worked for 6 years, made some money and realized something is missing, somehow, I managed to forget my dreams of becoming an astronaut and got comfortable doing a job I was good at but was not my life's calling.

I've wanted to be an astronaut since I was 10 years old. However, every time I told anyone that they would kind of laugh or brush it off as if I was saying I wanted to be the next pop star. Not cool.

When I was your age, thinking about what I wanted to do when I was done high school was the last thing on my mind. I spent a lot of time hanging out with my friends, playing every sport I could, and hanging out with my friends some more. In order to have all this time to play sports and lead an active social life I had to make sure I was doing well in school so that there would be no obstacles that my parents could throw in my way. Good grades = sports & friend time!

When I got to high school, I quickly realized that math and science were my favourite subjects, so I took as many of those credits as I could. What I liked about Math & Science instead of English or History for example, was once I learned the method, I always knew how to get to the ONE right answer and it was always an answer that did not need any debate! In grade 12 when you first start applying to university, I had NO idea what I wanted to do - there are no degrees that make you into an Astronaut! Luckily, I had an amazing Physics teacher who told me that I should consider taking engineering in University, I had no idea what Engineering was or what I could do with it, but I did know that I would get to take more math and science courses and probably never have to write another essay ever again, so I was sold! And honestly it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. It is also what scares me, I LUCKED into engineering. That's why I love that you girls are here this weekend and that camps like this exist! You're finding out about engineering and opportunities 4-6 years earlier than I did which is AWESOME!

High school graduation with my Gr. 12 Physics teacher Ms. Dresch. She was fun, intelligent, selfless and down to earth. Without her I don't know if I would be where I am today. She was an awesome role model and advocate for women in STEM. I still think about her all the time and I hope I can inspire others as she inspired me. ❤️RIP.

University took a bit more getting used to for me than high school. In my 2nd year, I failed not 1, but 2 undergraduate engineering courses...

I had NEVER failed anything ever before, so this was new to me and I did not like it.

But guess what? I lived!

I still graduated on time, the world did not in fact end, my parents did not disown me, and my friends did not care! I didn't fail because I wasn't smart enough or good enough, I failed because I didn't work hard enough at those particular courses and did not organize my time well. I prioritized the courses I was passionate about (which I aced by the way) and my social life (which was also pretty great) however it was at the expense of these two courses.

Sometimes the fear of failure can get in the way of trying new things, but failure is ok, it's how you handle the failure that really matters, and that is why I am telling you this story. Did I give up? NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT.

So, what did I do about it? Well I learned that I can no longer rely on the "natural talent" that got me through high school and 1st year of University, and I learned that I needed to manage my time better. I ended up re-writing the exam for one of the courses- which meant I had to study during the summer, and that sucked - and I had to retake the other - bringing my course load up to 7 courses one semester where the norm is about 4-5, which also sucked. In the end, I did quite well in both of the courses and I never let it happen again. So please remember this: failure is ok. It happens to everyone, and WHEN it happens to you, don't get discouraged, take what you've learned and use it to better yourself going forward!

Your failures will not define you if you don't let them. I'm now doing my PhD, which is the highest level of education you can attain, the work ethic I developed as a result of some hard lessons learned led me to achieve a perfect GPA in graduate school. #proof

NEVER discount your ambitions. What do I mean by that? Well, if there is something that you love to do or that you've always wanted to do then make a plan and start working your way there! If it turns out it wasn't what you expected that's great! Now you are one step closer to finding what truly sets your soul on fire!

I wanted to be an astronaut and I let that dream slide away instead of thinking about what I could to do to turn the dream into reality. When I was working at my last job, I was doing really well, I was about to be promoted, I was making great money and I worked with wonderful people, but something was missing. I always thought I would do something that could change the world and that's when I realized that yes, I want to be an astronaut and that is very difficult to do, but there are other things I can do related to the exploration of space that will satisfy my curiosity of the unknown and fuel fulfillment through my passions. That is why I decided to quit my job, go back to school and shoot for the stars - and I couldn't be happier.

Do not let the fear of failure stop you from doing ANYTHING! It might be scary, I am scared almost every day at some point, but that's because I am working towards my dreams. The stakes are high, but the pride I get from being a woman working towards a PhD in Aerospace engineering and pursuing my passion is worth the risk!



After imparting my wisdom to the young minds of our future, I took some time to teach the groups about how robotic systems work. With the help of some awesome volunteers, we were able to demonstrate how knowledge of real-world systems (dynamics, sensors & actuators) work together with GNC systems (Guidance, Navigation & Control) to control a robot!

I will not get into the details here, instead how about you check out the video of the demonstrations for yourselves!


I had such a great time hanging out with the girls over the rest of the evening, singing songs and roasting marshmallows by the fire. I was asked a lot of great questions which leads me to believe my presentation struck at least a few chords with the crowd. I even had some of the councilors come and talk about how they related to the story.


It was really hard for me to talk (and then post) about my failure in early stages of my academic career, I want people to look at me and see a smart and ambitious woman but #theSTRUGGLEisREAL and with social media masking the imperfections of humanity I thought putting it out there may help someone get through a tough time. Especially with everything that has been happening in the world lately.

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