When Lindy Elkins-Tanton applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the high school math teacher who wrote her recommendation told her, “You’ll never get in.” She proved him wrong, but throughout an extraordinary career in planetary science, she has often been made to question whether she, as a woman, belonged. In “A Portrait of the Scientist When She Was Young,” Dr. Elkins-Tanton recounts her traumatic childhood, the comfort she found in scientific research, and her accomplishments. In addition to being the vice president of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University, she is the principal investigator for NASA’s Psyche mission, an 11-year, $800 million effort by a team of 800 to launch a spacecraft to explore the planet. huge asteroid Psyche. The release is expected sometime in the next two years. She spoke to the Monitor recently.
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 those experiences added up as I wrote the book. In some places, those words really stuck with me, like with my math teacher: “I must not be good at math.” It’s something I complain about: why is it okay to say that girls aren’t good at math?
He worked in business for eight years before returning to MIT for his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics. How did his early experience in management consulting influence his scientific work?
Everything people do is about people working together, no matter the subject. So thinking about how we can work better together is always fruitful. Trying to create changes in teams has been instrumental in helping 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 fortress?
When I started taking science in high school and college, we worked with textbooks that make it seem like we have all the answers. But most of those things will be proven wrong or updated in some way over time. There are many more questions than answers. Realizing that was very liberating. If there are many more questions than answers, then we all have much we can do to contribute to the progress of humanity.
You say that gender bias became more pronounced as you rose through the ranks of academic leadership. Are you hopeful that prejudices about women leaders can be overcome?
Am. I think we are making slow progress. I was surprised that I experienced a lot more open issues based on gender as a leader than before. But it started to make sense: I was trying to join a smaller and smaller club, and people like people in their clubs so they remember themselves. It could be gender or race or socioeconomic status or whatever. If you are different, you are less likely to be welcomed.
You have supervised cases of sexual harassment. What did those experiences teach you?
The way to make a workplace less intimidating and harassing is to have the determination of people in lines to report harassment and hold leaders accountable to take action. It must also have a leadership that is clear about its ethics and its responsibility to generate change. You need both to create a better organization. Making that magic combination is the challenge.
Are things easier for women today?
Yes. Especially at the undergraduate level, there is more gender balance in the sciences, although parts of engineering still lag behind. My college experience… set me on a path that I appreciate immensely. But we all had prejudices to overcome. It’s not that we don’t have an implicit bias now, but it was a little more explicit then.
You write about battling 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 as if they are floating in a meaningless void. For others, it’s incredibly comforting that there’s so much more out there and that, in the long run, maybe our individual pain right now is smaller than it feels. For me, it is very comforting.
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