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Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton: “The global interest in becoming interplanetary”

The most important leadership lesson I’ve learned is that culture is everything. Leaders need to create a culture where every voice can be heard, where people can rise on their merits, and where people feel comfortable bringing problems forward early. One of the reasons there is a “leaky pipeline” in STEM fields (that is to say, […]

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The most important leadership lesson I’ve learned is that culture is everything. Leaders need to create a culture where every voice can be heard, where people can rise on their merits, and where people feel comfortable bringing problems forward early.

One of the reasons there is a “leaky pipeline” in STEM fields (that is to say, a pipeline where women and minorities exist in smaller percentages in higher level positions) is not because of a lack of interest or ability, but because of the culture. If you have a culture where people are bullied, feel alone, or feel that they cannot speak up, people are likely to go someplace else.


As a part of my series about “Women Leading The Space Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton.

Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton is an award-winning planetary scientist focused on maximizing discovery and working to create a generation of problem solvers. As the vice president and co-chair of Arizona State University Interplanetary Initiative, Dr. Elkins-Tanton works to build interdisciplinary teams that include government, education, and private sector members, and to create education programs that serve and prepare humanity for the future of space. She simultaneously serves as principal investigator of the groundbreaking Psyche mission — NASA’s first to ever explore a metal-rich asteroid and one which unites more than 800 scientists, engineers, and team members from dozens of research organizations. Dr. Elkins-Tanton teaches ASU’s Technological Leadership program both online and on-campus.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in Ithaca, New York. I never really know how to describe my childhood, because I can describe it in two ways. I was super privileged — my parents had enough money and we lived in a nice part of town. There was a huge focus in my household to be interested in things. You didn’t have to be interested in just science or just art or just music — everything was interesting. We learned the Latin names of plants with my dad because he loved it; we’d listen to the great tenor music; we’d go to museums; and everyone read books all of the time. I have two brothers who are eight and 10 years older than me. The big passion of my childhood was animals — I was fortunate enough to ride horses, and that was my world.

On the other hand, it was a tough childhood. I unfortunately suffered sexual abuse that caused me huge problems later in my life. I had scoliosis, so I had to wear a metal back brace for eight years. It’s a lot to process, and it made me a complicated, and sometimes a more difficult person. It gave me a lot of work to do in my 20s.

When people ask me how my childhood was, that’s truly the story. I don’t feel like I could tell a simple story.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There is a particular book — Animal Treasure by Ivan Sanderson, written in 1937. He was one of the earliest Europeans to go on a major animal finding trip in Africa to understand all of the types of animals that were unknown to Western science and rumored to exist.

He’d go camping and in the middle of the night crawl into holes in the bottom of trees to see what animals he could find. And he drew these amazing illustrations! From today’s point of view, it wasn’t humane because he was trapping them, killing them and bringing samples back. The thing that captivated me at the time — not having that perspective — was the courage and excitement of exploration. That really got me going. I read a whole series of books like it — anything I could get my hands on — about exploration. It’s really an interesting and fascinating book.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

We talk about this in our family, and we have a couple of quotes that we laugh about. One of them is “no whining without action.” The idea is that you can complain about something that isn’t right and you can be listened to with great empathy, but then you’ve got to do something about it. It’s not okay to sit there and complain, you have to then take action. That’s something I think everyone in my family has taken seriously: to try to make a change where we see things are wrong, and not to feel helpless.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.

You know, there wasn’t a particular story. The questions I get a lot are “did you know your whole life that you wanted to run a mission” or “did you always want to be an astronaut?” The answer is “no.” I really always wanted to be a veterinarian, until I realized that all the animals I loved were afraid of veterinarians.

I came into the space business kind of sideways. It’s not that I didn’t love it — it felt too distant from what I thought was accessible for me. I didn’t see a path — I didn’t even look for a path until the work I was doing was suddenly pertinent to the planets. It was so intellectually exciting, but it was way more than that. It’s what astronomy does for you — it makes you feel like you come out of yourself. It becomes a philosophy. It’s spiritually fascinating to think about things that are not of our Earth.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

It took us three years to get ready to write the first step of our proposal. NASA only invites proposals for this particular, fairly expensive mission category every three or four years. Out of 28 proposals, they only chose five to go to step 2. It was really a surprise. Our team of 140 people then had one year to write a really intense proposal.

We wrote a 1,000-page proposal and coordinated a site visit at MAXAR, our industry partner in the Bay Area.

The magnitude of trying to win a contract of this size was unthinkable to me. MAXAR redesigned, redecorated and repainted their executive lunchroom and all the hallways. We put up new art and hired an artist to drape a 30-foot banner over the front of the building so all you saw when you drove up was Psyche. We produced videos to run on monitors in the hallways so you could see what we were talking about as you walked back and forth to the restroom. We had meteorites brought in from the Smithsonian collection to show the panelists what we thought Psyche was made of. MAXAR even oiled the chairs in the room so nothing squeaked. It was unbelievable!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One story that comes to mind was during my undergraduate years. I was assigned to a research project with a faculty member and was over the moon excited because I had never conducted research before.

We built furnaces that mimicked conditions inside the Earth, then placed tiny pieces of rock inside to observe their reaction. Between welding the tiny materials together and gathering data every few days, this became a highly time-consuming project.

Six months later when we cut open the capsules, the exact same little bits of rock I had put in rolled out. Nothing happened to them at all. Researchers around me thought it was awful that we’d just completed nine months of work only to have to start over again, but in my naïveté I didn’t realize it was a catastrophe in terms of time and effort. It just seemed fun to me.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Each of us is being helped by people all the time, so naturally there are so many people to whom I’m grateful. In addition to my educators, mentors and advisors, four individuals stand out:

  1. Sonia Esperanca, program director of the National Science Foundation, Earth Sciences division. She took a risk by giving me my first research grant, and personally gave me advice about being a principal investigator.
  2. Maria Zuber, the very first woman to compete, win, and lead a space mission. She was a role model for me because I was the second.
  3. Sam Bowring, a wonderful scientist and educator who was on my research committee. He had a gift for suggesting things to people they wouldn’t have thought of themselves or seemed too aspirational. When I was a graduate student, he noticed my interests and suggested I put together an interdisciplinary team and seek a grant to find what caused the End-Permian extinction. After he said that, I couldn’t let go of the thought. I pursued the grant, and our team won. People like that change your life in ways you never know.
  4. And so importantly, Tim Grove, who gave me that first undergraduate research opportunity. He later advised me through my PhD and continues to be a support and a friend.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My biggest project now and in the indefinite future is the Psyche mission. We are moving into the final phase before launch, which includes assembly, test and launch operations. I hope Psyche inspires people to look up from the tiny things that bother us and think of our bigger place in the universe.

I have also been very fortunate to obtain a book contract. I’m writing about the pathways I’ve taken in my life and my thoughts about how we can build a better future, with an emphasis on lessons in team building, leadership, and education.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The space industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?

  1. The global interest in becoming interplanetary. This had been on the back burner for quite some time, but now we’re seeing a great interest and global movement toward this.
  2. The incredible growth of the space industry. Exploration is no longer being driven solely by governments; there’s growing involvement by the private sector.
  3. Most importantly, the involvement of nations that have not previously had a space program. More and more, smaller nations are putting together space agencies and finding ways to participate in exploration. I feel this growth can be a force to bring humanity together in a positive way.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

I only have one major concern, which is the difficulty of making space exploration equitable and spreading the benefits across humanity. As excited as I am that small nations are putting together space agencies, I recognize larger, more established agencies could travel further and reap more benefits of space resources when the time comes. Space exploration must be a story for all of humankind, so we have an obligation to do this the right way.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No, I’m not at all satisfied with the status quo. Women and people of color are absolutely devalued in STEM, and it has been shown empirically through studies over and over again. People — men and women included — have an implicit bias to believe women are not as good in STEM.

To combat this bias, leaders need to be outspoken about equitable treatment and put a stop to harassment and bullying. The same is true for non-leaders; they’ve got to stand up for their rights and report when things are wrong.

There is work to be done in this area, but I am hopeful about the future for a more diverse and equitable STEM workforce.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

One of the biggest problems is a lack of gravitas. That is to say, when a woman or person of color is speaking we are primed to believe their words are not as true or as valuable as those of the dominant group.

The filter in our brains that immediately devalues what someone has to say based on their gender or ethnic background is not exclusive to the space industry, but is everywhere in human experience. It makes it difficult to attain and maintain leadership, and lead teams overall. We need to keep speaking up about it, building our confidence, and stepping forward.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?

I believe the number one myth is that women and people of color are not as good at or less interested in STEM than others. If you were to run sociological and cognitive science experiments, you would find that this isn’t true at all. Getting rid of myths and opening a door for everyone who wants to participate in STEM is key.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

The most important leadership lesson I’ve learned is that culture is everything. Leaders need to create a culture where every voice can be heard, where people can rise on their merits, and where people feel comfortable bringing problems forward early.

One of the reasons there is a “leaky pipeline” in STEM fields (that is to say, a pipeline where women and minorities exist in smaller percentages in higher level positions) is not because of a lack of interest or ability, but because of the culture. If you have a culture where people are bullied, feel alone, or feel that they cannot speak up, people are likely to go someplace else.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe the most important thing we can do for the future of humanity is develop an education system that teaches people how to solve their own problems. Oftentimes students know to find answers in the back of a textbook, but we need to proactively teach students they have the agency and ability to solve problems on their own. After all, most things are not known, and most problems are not solved.

We have spent decades working on this sort of education. In fact, we built this type of learning into the Technological Leadership bachelor program at Arizona State University. Our students practice asking better questions, finding the answers to those questions, understanding sources of bias, and putting together everything they’ve learned into a landscape of knowledge so they have the ability to make decisions and understand big processes on their own.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

The person who I’d most love to have breakfast with, learn from, and share ideas with is Kamala Harris. On inauguration day I even wore all the pearls I own in her honor!

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