Ellen Stofan Left NASA But She’s Still Trying to Push Humanity Forward

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Humans of the Year

In the 80s, one of Ellen Stofan’s peers told her she didn’t need to worry about finding work after graduate school. “You don’t need a job,” he said. “You have a husband.”

Now, she would have given this person a veritable earful. At the time, however, Stofan was speechless. Coming from a peer, this was a slap. “Is that how people look at me?” she wondered.

In December of last year, Stofan ended a three-year stint as NASA’s chief scientist, where she acted as the connection between the public and then-administrator Charles Bolden. At NASA, she helped build architecture that will send humans to Mars (hopefully by 2030) and held leadership research roles for missions to explore four planets (including Earth, plus a moon).

She’s done field work on volcanoes in Hawaii, California, Sicily, and Iceland; was vice president of Proxemy Research and an honorary professor at University College London in England; and now serves as co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s council on space. She holds a master’s and a doctorate degree in geological sciences from Brown University. She’s been defending the NASA budget, literally, since fifth grade.

Despite all of these achievements, that offhand comment from a peer still kind of pisses her off, with good reason.

When she resigned as chief scientist (Stofan left because the position, along with chief technologist, was originally intended to rotate every two years) she made the mistake of reading the comments.

“When you push… That’s when you get your leaps forward.”

“There was some article saying I was leaving, and someone said, ‘She only got the job because of her father,'” Stofan said. (Stofan’s father was an engineer at NASA in Cleveland, Ohio, and her mother was a science teacher.)

“When you know that’s in some people’s minds… It’s tiring, it’s tiring to go into a room and be the only woman, and be feeling, ‘I’m not sure I belong here, I’m sure some of the men in this room don’t think I belong here. So now I have to not just perform, I have to outperform,” Stofan said.

Progress is happening, but not fast enough to stanch the drain of women from science and technology fields (the percentage of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded to women actually fell from 2004 to 2014, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center). “It’s too slow, I won’t lie to you,” she told me.

Mary Leakey and Jane Goodall were early role models. She attended her first rocket launch at four years old, but she didn’t really decide she wanted to pursue planetary geology or any career in space science until she was 14, watching the rockets her dad helped create blast the Voyager landers toward Mars. Carl Sagan was there, giving talks about life on Mars and the history of water on the red planet. This, she thought, was something she could get into.

What followed were years of geology and planetary studies. And it wasn’t just Mars: The project closest to her heart is the Titan Mare Explorer, a proposal to send a boat to the alien seas of Saturn’s largest moon.

As chief scientist, what she considers her biggest accomplishment might seem small in comparison: Collecting demographic data on people who send proposals to NASA. The stakes are too high—saying the fate of humanity rests on them isn’t hyperbole—to exclude or otherwise drive away great talent because of implicit biases.

“When you have these tough challenges, and you’re not tapping into the talent of all of your population I think it’s a huge problem,” Stofan said. “It’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake.”

On many matters she cares deeply about, Stofan is optimistic. She sees a NASA that’s moving toward giant leaps in private spaceflight, that will answer whether we’re alone in the universe within the next generation, and that will someday get our asses to Mars, with a ton of health, climate, and technology innovation along the way. Even in the gender gap, she sees good news: “If you encourage girls and people of color to go into science, they’re much more likely to go in. If you tell them they can do it, no matter what their grades are, they’re much more likely to stick with it.”

As the country transitions from an administration openly supportive of scientific consensus to one full of skeptics—Stofan is concerned about how the new leadership will impact both NASA and the wider world of research.

“I do think it’s somewhat ironic that people argue who don’t want to accept climate change are saying that the science isn’t settled and at the same time trying to shut down the science,” she said. “Which to me means they understand very well that the science is settled and now they’re trying to hide the evidence.”

Does that mean scientists should also be activists, I ask? “I don’t see that as activism and I don’t see it as politics,” she said. “Scientists are not doing their job if they’re not bearing witness to the public to what they do and what they see.”

Doing the really, truly hard things, she says—saving the world, solving the gender gap, sending people to Mars, sending a boat to an alien sea—is foremost an investment in the innovation journey. “When you push… That’s when you get your leaps forward.”

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