The Canadian CubeSat Project (CCP) is providing professors in post-secondary institutions with an opportunity to engage their students in a real space mission by having them design and build their own miniature satellite.

Since the CCP began in May 2018, the teams have been making good progress with their projects. However, the global pandemic has slowed operations down somewhat, and has forced the teams to become even more resourceful. This unusual situation is actually good preparation for them to work in the space sector, where it's often necessary to adapt quickly to new constraints and find solutions to difficulties or unforeseen problems.

Meet Danielle Griffin, a former member of the Dalhousie University CubeSat team. She is currently completing her master's degree in materials engineering.

We sat down with Danielle to talk about her involvement in the Canadian CubeSat Project while she was still part of the team. She opened up about living with autism, the impact it has had on her life and the advantage of being different.

Can you please introduce yourself and tell us where you're from?

I am Danielle Griffin, and I have autism. I'm going into my fifth year of materials engineering at Dalhousie University. I'm originally from the UK, but I moved to Canada with my family back in 2007. We came here for the better school system and better support. I'm part of the satellite structure team on the CubeSat mission for Dalhousie. I'm also an avid advocate, a volunteer at Autism Nova Scotia and co-founder of the Women's Autism/Autistic Project.

How did you get involved in the Canadian CubeSat Project?

Well, I work closely with the PI [Principal Investigator], Dr. Kevin Plucknett. He brought it to my attention when it was a very new thing happening at Dalhousie, and I've always wanted to join a team. I love working in teams actually, but there was none that had piqued my interest until Dr. Plucknett mentioned the CubeSat mission. I've always wanted to work in aerospace and learn more about the Canadian Space Agency. So immediately I was on board and yeah, it's been a great experience so far.

How would you describe your condition to someone who doesn't know a lot about autism?

Oh, I've had to do that before several times, so I'm quite used to that. Basically autism is a spectrum, so it doesn't mean that I'm different in any way than others; I just think things through differently and I may have issues seeing the bigger picture sometimes or the grand scheme of things, but I think of it mostly as a strength because I'm able to pick out very small details that others would likely miss.

But really when it comes down to it, it's just a way of thinking and every person on the spectrum is completely different, which is why it's so hard to make a definition of it.

How has it impacted the way you work with your team?

I'm a very visual learner. That's part of autism. I would say that 90% of people on the spectrum are visual learners. We think in pictures; we draw everything in pictures. So if my teammates are explaining something, I'll typically ask them to draw it instead, draw a little design or schematic and that works great. Also, I tell them to let me know if I do anything socially that might be inappropriate or if I'm saying things wrong, because I may not know. So far everyone's been very understanding and accepting. I've made really good friends with them. And the main thing is we're all focused on building this CubeSat together. So it doesn't matter who's a bit different or not. We have the same end goal.

What special skills do you bring to the project and your team?

I tend not to see the bigger picture when I'm doing a project. However, I do see small details that others would likely miss or not realize are there, so I do get to pick out those. I also become extremely focused. When I'm excited about something, I will become focused and that's all I can do for the next week or two. So I bring that extra motivation, I guess [laughs]. I also think about things in a very different way and if I do ask somebody to draw something out, I can point out something that's in the drawing, or they'll draw it and they'll suddenly realize, "Oh, we can't do it this way. We have to do it that way." So we can look at things from different perspectives. I think it's a great asset to have on a team! [laughs]

You seem to know yourself very well and be able to manage everything quite smoothly.

It comes with time… I've had to do a lot of practice. I wasn't diagnosed until I was 17, so my family couldn't access any of the support in the schools because I didn't have a diagnosis. I've learnt how to hide and mimic and I've worked really hard on this, and also how to monitor myself. It's taken years of practice and training. It takes a lot of energy. So my brain is constantly working on that. I've got a part of my brain thinking about what kind of energy level I have right now. And then I've got a part of my brain thinking about the environment and possible noises that I'm hearing and sensory issues.

And then that was another part: working on social. How do I carry on a conversation? You're constantly monitoring yourself. I like to think of that as a computer almost. I've got several programs running at the same time and so it's almost like a supercomputer [laughs]. It's a good way to describe the process, I think.

What will you be taking away from being part of a team for the Canadian CubeSat Project?

Well, it's really shown me how accepting people are and how far we've come in terms of neurodiversity in engineering.

Do you have any advice for people with autistic teammates or coworkers? How can they be sure to give them the place they deserve in a team or in a work environment?

Well, the best advice honestly is just not to get frustrated. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but you know, keep calm, because typically in my experience, all we need is just a rewording of something or a drawing. There's many ways to explain concepts; you can try exploring them all. People on the spectrum are typically extremely visual, so I would recommend a picture or drawing.

You know, the best way is just… don't judge. Mostly because sometimes we do need to go home and have some alone time. Sometimes we rock ourselves or flap our hands if we're trying to calm ourselves down. And if it's not hurting you or anyone else, then it shouldn't matter anyway. But people do judge from time to time, but there's really no need to, and you're making the environment much more uncomfortable if you do judge because we can tell — we can tell when you're doing that. So, just leave people be; let them do their thing.

That's great advice for life in general!

That's it. I actually had a conversation with a girl, just a couple of days ago, and she was asking me, well, do people look funny at you? Look and judge you? Yes, they do from time to time, but the most important thing is to — I know it's really hard to do — but you've got to ignore them and focus all of your energy on positive aspects. So people who do appreciate you for your talents and your skills and also your interests, you can put so much more energy into that and ignore the others that are being negative. It's taken a long time for me to learn that it's a life-long lesson. And I'm still learning too. It takes practice!

Finally, what would you say to someone who lacks self-confidence because of their autism?

That's a hard one because a lot of us do lack confidence and it does take a long time to build that up. But focus on your interests. People on the spectrum typically have a special interest that they know everything about… focus on that because it's like a superpower, honestly. Your special interest will lead you to other things and you know, it can get you jobs, friends, skills — it's really amazing what you can do if you focus on that one thing and become an expert. Own it, rock it and just be yourself, because there's always going to be people who will say bad things about you or will judge. But at the end of it, they don't matter at all. So be yourself and just enjoy life. Really enjoy being different because it's an advantage in most areas.

York University's ESSENCE team is hard at work on its CubeSat, despite the challenges of the last year. The students on the team are also preparing for the critical design review, which, as the name suggests, is held at a critical point in the process to give the team the last go/no-go before production. With this impressive workload, they still took the time to answer our questions.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic and the public health measures in your area affected your work?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on our project. We lost access to our ground station, the labs, and the testing facilities over the entire summer. We are still unable to access them.

Has the situation changed the way you work as a team? Did your team develop coping mechanisms or new processes as a result?

Team meetings are now fully online, which means that we are able to meet more frequently for shorter periods of time. We also started to conduct meetings just for team leads. Those helped us keep everyone on the same page about each subsystem's progress and became an opportunity for us to share resources, support each other, and help lead our team members. Some of our team leads have also organized "online office hours," which is an amazing way to support our team members and answer their questions.

Are you planning on keeping those measures in place even if the situation comes back to normal?

We will definitely continue to host general online meetings and the team-leads' meetings, as those have increased our efficiency and helped us keep each other on track during these isolating times.

Could you identify one positive change/impact on your team brought by this new situation?

The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed us to have more flexible meeting times and has given us time to work on our social media outreach.

How is your CubeSat project going right now?

Good. Currently, we are focusing on getting the critical design review documentation ready. The extra time given to prepare has been very helpful to our team.

The RADSAT-SK team is still working on its space technology project. Despite their heavy course loads, the students on the team are preparing for the critical review of the design phase. Addi Amaya answered our questions.

Can you describe the impact of the COVID-19 situation on your project?

When the pandemic hit there was not much progress in terms of our project. Just like the rest of the world, the team was at a standstill. During the spring and summer everything was slow, and only a handful of students were keeping the high-level aspects of the project going. During July/August, the RADSAT-SK team was determined to not allow COVID-19 to prevent students from joining the project. The recruitment team continued their work by preparing slides and getting the message out there through online class lectures and social media. After all the RADSAT-SK did to prepare for the term, the outcome was very successful.

Has the situation changed the way you work as a team? Did your team develop coping mechanisms or new processes as a result?

The RADSAT-SK team used a virtual communication platform before COVID-19, and it has proved useful during the pandemic. As the team had to adapt to an online environment only, we adopted more communication platforms to discuss aspects of the project and work in small groups. These meetings tend to have higher turnouts than physical meetings.

Could you identify one positive change/impact on your team brought by this new situation?

Because the campus was shut down for the general population, a lot of residents who do not live in Saskatchewan went home. The methods of communication allowed those students to still be involved even if they are far away.

The RADSAT-SK plans on hosting virtual outreach presentations for grades 1 to 8 to continue inspiring youth about aerospace design, even during the pandemic. Even though everything is online, the RADSAT-SK is still an ambitious group of students willing to put in the work to complete Saskatchewan's first CubeSat.