Dr. Roberta Bondar: Reaching From Space to Earth


As the first Canadian woman in space and one of TIME Magazine’s “World’s Best Explorers,” Dr. Roberta Bondar has taken giant steps in exploring the adaptability of the human brain. A renowned speaker on adaptive thinking, she continues to inspire as a leader and visionary for corporations and organizations navigating uncharted territory across North America. Through the Bondar Foundation — and the Bondar Challenge most specifically — she encourages people to explore and the ecosystems that connect us all and the world of which we are but a part.

Peopletalk caught up with Dr. Bondar, a keynote speaker at the HR Conference & Expo,  to discuss her ‘well-traveled’ life,  business and what the future may hold for HR professionals. 

How did your incredibly diverse academic background affect your experience of being the first woman in space and all that has come after?

I must say to be the first of anything is always a challenge because people don’t know how to frame the reference. It’s always based on some of other first and people try to put you in a box. I just had to ignore all that — I was the oldest and youngest Canadian women, the first right-handed lady in space. All I wanted to concentrate on was doing the best job I could to represent the country and I felt I could represent the country as well as any many, or as well as any woman — and that was really front and centre. I wanted to make sure that my family was proud of what I had done.

I felt that the training as a neurologist allowed me to cope with some of the many challenges that were not just about the experiment set, but about trying to understand some of the things that went on space, so I could be a good witness and give some anecdotal evidence about the things that change in space. So the background of being a neurologist played very heavily into my ability to come back with some good scientific observations and suggestions about the way forward for some of the research work that needed to be done for space medicine.

There were many, many things at play in my space flight and they really all came back to my being comfortable with who I was and the training that I had. I think if I hadn’t had as much training and as much education, I know I would not have done as well. I probably wouldn’t have been selected.

As a champion of biodiversity and ecosystems via the Bondar Challenge, how do you think the growing wave of eco-consciousness is impacting the paradigm of business-as-usual?

Dr. Roberta Bondar will be speaking at the Upside of People, HR Conference & Expo on Sept. 27-28th. 

I don’t think ‘business as usual’ — anything as usual — is usual anymore. Certainly since the Internet — when everything became so much more available to people to make judgments on, even if not always with the most reliable information base — the world has become a place where it’s almost a whirlwind all the time.

So what we are trying to do with the Bondar Challenge — and the Foundation in general — is reconnect people to the natural world because there are things that the natural world does that we could learn from — whether it’s flight, which we’re still learning from different birds about how they maneuver and trying to incorporate those things technologically in plane design; we’re looking at dragon flies and how they move around and how that could help us develop robotic systems that will fly independently on Mars.

There’s lots of stuff that I think that would help us with our innovation and our creativity, to help us with our own coping with the world, let alone trying to be more eco-conscious in the sense of being better recyclers with clean air and clean soil. So there are different aspects and we are really trying to get people to understand the ethics of being a human being — to be able to ask, ‘what am I doing that impacts another life form and how can I do it better, and how can I encourage other people to participate so that the world is a fairer and more just place for not just human beings, but for other life forms?’

With change a constant, but the direction not always certain, what are those traits that individuals and organizations need to nurture for navigating uncharted territories?

Well, first thing, I think change is a constant in one sense, but it is a continuous flow, it is continuously changing, which is more difficult to predict. If it was constant, then we could predict the kinds of things that would occur. It sounds a bit pedantic, but it implies that there are ups and downs and you can’t really predict the course of it, so one has to basically have — and I hate to keep using this toolkit analogy, but people seem to like it — a skillset that allows one to be much more nimble in any environment.

One of the things I talk to people about is that you can’t be nimble if you don’t have a good sound background that you can go back to and from which you can pull other things out in order to cope with things. I also believe it’s important to be attentive to the kind of things that are working for you in your personal environment, as well as your professional one. Quite often what we learn from our personal life we carry over to our professional one and vice versa.

I also believe that the more engaged people are in society in an ethical human way, it’s going to help. Those are the individuals that will bring in new life and new ideas. We need to have people who will come from a variety of sources to be able to solve issues in an innovative way, otherwise it would have been done by the people who had the cloned brains in the first place. One needs the diversity and flexibility — not to be a clone. One doesn’t want to have a cloned brain from just one university or one business or one setting all of one’s life.

Given the ongoing disruption and potential of emerging technologies, how can HR professionals best create/support the sustainable success of an organization?

I am not an HR person, so I look at it from a different level of human behaviour, how human beings have to deal with change at any level, and technology is something that definitely does change. Technology requires ongoing engagement because technology may change, but if you haven’t left up with the previous iteration of the technology it’s really hard to jump a generation.

I do believe in continuing education in any business, so HR really has a role to play with encouraging that and to try to help people and help companies that anyone involved in the corporation’s make up to be able to support people’s ongoing education — have them go somewhere for a week for education, let them continue developing those skills.

Refreshing skills and learning new ones, if it’s done in a negative way, no one is going to want to do them and they’re going to dig their heels in or go to their unions — they’ll hate it. But if it’s done in a way that they know they are going to benefit on a level that they are going to be either rewarded for professionally or has some application in their personal life, something they value, that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about trying to understand where those overlaps are within someone’s value system and what it is that the company is trying to do. That’s what HR people really need to spend the time doing with each person.

I think the whole business of continually refreshing people’s connection to a company, refreshing whatever the technology is and trying to be more forward thinking about what might be next really helps to better position people with the understanding that the learning needs to keeps going — it’s fluid. Being able to say, ‘okay and here is what we will be learning six days, six weeks or six months from now,’ is really important because people like to be recognized like that. They like to know what’s ahead, what’s planned, who’s behind them and how much they’re valued reflected in what kind of time their given to learn some new things.

Having inspired so many and achieved so much, how have your own inspirations changed over the years, and what fuels you most now?

The thing that fuels me most now is the same thing that has fuelled me in the past — to inspire other people, to be able to share with them information that they can use to make their lives better and to encourage people to always be moving forward with their skillsets — especially in learning new things. Embracing new information and knowledge is critical, and has always been critical to my life.

The experience of being in space did change some of direction I wanted to take and some of the decisions other people on the ground made changed the some of those decisions I was going to make. I was inspired to do certain things and then doors were shut on me, so then I decided that they might have shut some doors, but they didn’t shut them all. So I chose another door.

I think what continues for me is just that — not shutting doors, to keep them open, so no matter what happens, there is always a door I open. To go into space, for me, inspired me to have an even greater presence because very people get to have the experience and not just the experience of being in space, but to have the wisdom and ethics I have always had because of my family. I was taught about the value of life and to always embrace new ideas, to look and see and learn.

For me, I looked at the planet and realized I had a larger role to play and even as a Canadian, where we tend to have smaller roles in the world, I did not want a smaller role, not for my ego’s sake, but because it would be a lost opportunity. So that’s why the Foundation and the Bondar Challenge was very important for me — to extend that reach — and photography is something I have done all my life and I am professionally trained in, so when other doors were shut, I decided the time was right and ran through that door.

That’s how I went into another world of applying my space flight to life and that’s what I am doing now through my photography and the Foundation. There are things I am still able to do in my life to reach from my vantage point in space to inspire to look at the world and all of its life forms differently. That’s what continues to inspire me — to know that I still have the ability to touch people in a way that, without the space flight, would not have occurred.

What parallels do you see between natural ecosystems and the rising call for diversity in the workplace?

I think having a respect for the natural world and the vastness of its ecosystems helps us understand, wait a second, we ourselves create our own ecosystems in our business, in the physical space we’ve created, the manufactured space, and it is complex. This is why diversity is so important to us because no one culture has the answer to what is best because best shifts all the time. We have to understand that better — that the diversity of the human world is just as great as the natural world.

But the natural world has learned how to incorporate one with the other and knows all these things without even having books or computers, so we’re playing catch up as human beings — trying to understand how our human ecosystems can interweave and how we can learn from each other. Tying all of our diverse brains together is a nifty idea because no two people think the same. If you do, then we go back to the beginning of our conversations because you are talking about clones and that never works. People who are clones die out because of lack of diversity.



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