August 22, 2016

Q&A with Dr. Ellen Stofan, Chief Scientist at NASA

Posted by cbunge

Did you know? Women’s Equality Day is August 26th! To celebrate, AGU will be featuring several female scientists on social media throughout the week. We’ll be posting Q&A’s on The Bridge, asking geoscientists about career advice, the work they do, and why it’s important to get involved in science policy. Today’s featured scientist is Dr. Ellen Stofan. Dr. Stofan is the Chief Scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She received her M.S. and Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from Brown University, and her B.S. from the College of William & Mary. 

bridgeWho or what has inspired you to pursue your research?

To paraphrase Newton, all scientists really do stand upon the shoulders of the scientists who came before them. So the people who inspired me were space scientists like Carl Sagan and Gerry Soffen who gave me early inspiration when I attended the NASA Viking Mission to Mars launch as a teenager. But later in my career it was my professors, from Jerre Johnson and Steve Clement at the College of William & Mary to Jim Head and Carle Pieters at Brown University. Now it is my colleagues, people like Sue Smrekar, Jonathan Lunine, Ralph Lorenz and Elizabeth Turtle, as well as up and coming scientists like Sarah Horst who inspire me. Just as these great men and women inspire me, I participate in many domestic and international outreach events in hopes of inspiring students to see their potential and pursue STEM degrees and careers.

Why do you think it’s important to get involved in science policy?

It’s important to get involved in science policy because we need passionate individuals to be that bridge between the science community, stakeholders, and the general public and to advocate for critical science programs and investments in the U.S.  In addition, we need individuals to impartially develop, implement, and assess policies that preserve and promote the integrity of U.S. scientific research programs in order to remain a leader in the international science community. With the challenges we face as a global society, from climate change to cybersecurity to mining big data, we need scientists to be part of the team developing policy, or we stand a good chance of having policy that is not grounded in good science, and may actually be detrimental.

What is an obstacle you have had to overcome to get to your current position?

An obstacle that I had to overcome, as well as many other females in the science fields, was the feeling of non-inclusion in school and in certain jobs. However, I feel extremely fortunate that I had a supportive family, supportive teachers and professors, as well as extremely wonderful mentors and sponsors throughout my career that helped me navigate environments that were not inclusive.  Everyone needs this- but women scientists as well as scientists from other underrepresented groups- who research shows tend to have a much tougher road- need this even more. There has been so much great research done in this area- from understanding how to counter realities like stereotype threat and implicit bias to understanding concepts like intersectionality. I place incredible importance on paying it back- don’t ever hesitate to go give a talk in a classroom to show that not all scientists are white males, to reach out to a junior colleague to be a mentor, to ask why there are no people of color on a panel. We all are part of the solution in making our scientific and engineering population look like the population of our country- this is the only way to tap into the best talent.

Did you have any important mentors in your career, and how did they impact you?

I’ve had several mentors who had a positive influence in my career from high school to this present day. I was very fortunate to have Tim Mutch as a mentor while I was in high school.  Tim was the NASA Associate Administrator for Science and a geology professor at Brown University.  He provided me with great college and career advice that guided me through high school and into my major and research. Unfortunately, Tim died while on a climbing expedition in the Himalayas in 1980. Everyone needs a mentor to help guide them in the right direction and help them reach their goals. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help because everyone at some point in their careers got help from a more senior person- no one does it on their own. I challenge senior researchers to look for those that might need help and/or advice and mentor and motivate them to keep pushing forward through all the challenges.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to work in science policy?

My advice to scientists interested in science policy is to get a really good grounding in science or engineering, so that you come from a position of expertise. But you also need to be knowledgeable of various science disciplines because in most cases, your policy focus will be broad.  For example I am a planetary geologist, but I worked in human spaceflight, earth science, and technology development, which gave me the knowledge and appreciation to advocate for all NASA sciences. Although you may not be actively conducting science research, your input into science policy has great influence on the community that you are representing and the technical work that’s being accomplished.  For me, being a science policy advocate means spending every day doing things like learning about the latest research on the nature of black holes, working to promote the research we do on the International Space Station to prepare to send humans to Mars, or representing NASA as we work to help countries around the world use earth science data to become more resilient to climate change.

What should be the future priorities for scientific research in the U.S.?

Climate change is by far the biggest challenge facing our planet. It is important for the U.S. to continue scientific research into understanding how Earth is changing (rising sea levels, record temperatures, severe weather events, etc.), how our planet could change in the future, and how humanity can cope and overcome these changes. The data that we collect of our planet from space is critical to this. Just take food security- we use our NASA earth science data to work with other government agencies and the international l community to monitor the health of food crops globally and to better understand which regions may end up with too much rain or too little.

But we also need to be looking outward- we have discovered over 3000 planets around other stars in the last few years with the help of our Kepler Space Telescope, and are right now trying to seek signs of past Martian life with our Curiosity rover on Mars. Our Cassini spacecraft has been returning intriguing data on Saturn’s ocean moons Enceladus and Titan. We are truly on the verge of understanding the likelihood of life beyond Earth.

How can the U.S. ensure that it continues to play a leading role in scientific discovery?

In order for the U.S. to continue leading in scientific discovery, we must continue implementing bold missions that explore the unknown to answer our challenging questions and investing in the fundamental research that underlies the technological capabilities that have carried this nation forward. We must continue to inspire more students to pursue STEM degrees/careers, especially underrepresented groups, because a flux of students of diverse backgrounds and points of view are needed in the pipeline to tackle the challenges we face.

We also must continue to develop and maintain partnerships that include government, academia, the private sector, and international entities. We must continue to leverage the skills from all sources in order to keep pushing the bounds of science and accomplish our goals.

What discovery do you hope is made in your lifetime?

My hope is that we are able to answer the fundamental question: Are we alone? We must continue exploring other places in the universe to determine if life exists or existed elsewhere. NASA is currently on a journey to Mars, with a goal of putting humans on the surface of Mars in the 2030s. I believe it will take humans on the surface of Mars to crack open rocks and find evidence of life—past or present. This goal is great for science because finding life on another planet will fundamentally help to us understand the nature of life, but it also will push our country forward economically as we invest in new capabilities and new technologies. Doing things as a global society that are truly challenging, like sending humans to Mars, moves us all forward.

Do you have a favorite photograph from your career? Why it is important to you?

I love this photo of me out on a lava flow in Hawaii. Trying to understand the geology of other planets is really complex, and getting a constant grounding in fieldwork here on this planet helps to keep me real! Plus, the challenge of trying to understand the complexities of lava flow emplacement, and what that implies about the emplacement of really large volcanic flows on Earth and on other planets is really fun. Sometimes as scientists we forget to talk about how what we do is not just challenging and important, but actually flat out fun.

Thank you to Dr. Stofan for her time and answers. Be sure to follow her on Twitter @EllenStofan!