When Lindy Elkins-Tanton applied to MIT, the high school math teacher who wrote her recommendation told her, “You’ll never get in.” She proved him wrong, but throughout her extraordinary career in planetary science, she was often made to question whether she, as a woman, belonged. In Portrait of a Scientist as a Young Woman, Dr. Elkins-Tanton describes her traumatic childhood, the solace she found in research, and her accomplishments. In addition to being vice president of Arizona State University’s Interplanetary Initiative, she is principal investigator of NASA’s Psyche mission, an 11-year, $800 million effort by an 800-person team to launch a spacecraft to study the massive asteroid Psyche. The market launch is expected sometime in the next two years. She spoke recently to Monitor.
How did you deal with being made to feel like an outsider as a woman in science?
It was interesting for me to see how these experiences accumulated as I wrote the book. In some places these words really stuck with me, like with my math teacher: “I must not be good at math.” This is something I push back against – why is it okay to say girls are not good at math?
You worked in business for eight years before returning to MIT for your Ph.D. in geology and geophysics. How did your early experience in management consulting influence your work in science?
Everything people do is about people working together, no matter the subject. So thinking about how we can best work together is always fruitful. Trying to create change in teams has helped me get to where I am in my career.
Asking questions is often seen as a sign of weakness. How did you turn it into a strength?
When I started studying science in high school and college, we worked from textbooks that made us sound like we had all the answers. But most of these things will be proven wrong or updated in some way over time. There are many more questions than answers. Realizing this was very liberating. If there are many more questions than answers, then we all have so much we can do to contribute to the progress of humanity.
You say that gender bias became more pronounced as you rose as a leader in academia. Do you hope that the bias against female leaders can be overcome?
I am. I think we are making slow progress. It surprised me that as a leader I experienced so many more obvious gender-based issues than I had before. But it started to make sense – I was trying to join smaller and smaller clubs, and people like people in their clubs to remind them of themselves. It could be gender, race, socioeconomic status, or whatever. If you are different, you are less likely to be welcome.
You have observed cases of sexual harassment. What did these experiences teach you?
The way to create a workplace with less bullying and harassment is to have the determination of people in the ranks to report harassment and hold management accountable for taking action. You must also have leadership that is clear about its ethics and its responsibility to create change. You need these two things to create a better organization. Creating this magical combination is the challenge.
Are things easier for women today?
yes Especially at the undergraduate level there is a greater gender balance in the sciences, although parts of engineering still lag behind. My undergraduate experience … set me on a path that I value immensely. But we all had to overcome biases. Not that we don’t have a hidden bias now, but it was a little more clear back then.
Write about struggling with depression and anxiety in the past. Has thinking about the vastness of the universe affected your perspective on your own problems?
For some people, beginning to understand the vastness of the universe is terrifying and makes them feel like they are floating in a void of meaninglessness. For others, it is incredibly comforting that there is so much more out there, and that in the very long run, perhaps our individual pain at this point is less than we feel. This is very comforting to me.