A planetary scientist at Arizona State University has an eclectic resume.
She has worked in a variety of jobs. She is the principal investigator of NASA's Psyche mission which is designed to explore the asteroid of the same name. In her new memoir, A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman, she tells the story of all of these experiences.
Elkins-Tanton talked to Space.com about her new book, how she came to planetary science, and more. The interview has been edited to make it clearer.
Space and sci-fi books will be published in 2021.
The book came about for you.
The history of exploration was something I was thinking about writing about. I am interested in the roles of wealth and gender in the history of exploration. I was talking to an agent and she said that my story was more interesting. I was excited that anyone would be interested in the book we were discussing.
Space.com asked how you made it so personal.
The human experience is more useful to me than anything else. There are a lot of places where you can read about science. I want to know what the person is doing, what they were thinking, how they got there, and why they did it. That's what makes it relevant and interesting.
I didn't know where I was going from the beginning of my story, which may be unusual and interesting to other people. I wondered if I wanted to pursue music in high school. Is it really science that interests me? I thought I wanted to do animal behavior when I was younger. My curiosity about the world was stronger than my confidence in myself as a scientist, even though I ended up in geology. After my undergrad, I went and worked in business for many years, and I was very curious to learn about business. It was fascinating to see how people organize teams and try to get things done and what motivates them, it was very different than academia.
How has your experience informed the work you do?
"It's too bad that you spent all this time doing business, but now you're back on track." I had done myself a disservice when I felt like it was late.
I had people ask if it was bad to work in a cutthroat business. That's not my experience at all. It can be more cutthroat in a high-powered academic place.
The power of having a common goal in business is that it allows you to sell whatever you want. In the larger projects that I've put together, I've found that having a bottom line makes people come together. The Psyche mission is the largest of them all. Everyone on the team wants to build a robot that can go to space and look at an asteroid that no humans have ever seen before. The team is pulled together by that motivating similarity. Humans are at their best when they are at their best. One of the things that I brought with me from the business world was the idea that having a world where each person is out for themselves, the way it is in some parts of academia, is not the best way to make progress or a nice workplace.
There's a chapter where you write about the time you spent in Siberia looking for signs of the extinction. What was it like to work on that field?
It was fun to go back and think about Siberia. I think it's more exotic and fanciful than it was when it was first proposed. It was pretty sweet to revisit. It's not that far in the past, but 2006 is a little while ago now and I revisit what it was like to be there and what we ate and drank.
Space.com asked if you wrote about dealing with harassment in academics in the book. It was important for you to include those experiences.
The things that I really wanted to write about were the ones that made me feel good. Either they had been difficult or surprising, I realized a lot about people. The parts of the story that made me feel like they were just itching to get out onto the page were the ones that made me feel like they were just itching to get out onto the page.
Learning about how organizations and teams make themselves function better and be safer for more people has been a lot of fun. It seems obvious, but not everyone cares about that stuff. People who don't empathise with those who are harassed or bullied may not be as motivated to take care of that kind of team culture problem.
It has been learned that making change in human organizations is not easy. You need both ends of the hierarchy to work towards the same goal. To hold leadership accountable, you need the rank and file, to be willing to report and to be willing to press for a better culture. It's difficult to do that.
The leadership has to be determined to make a well functioning organization. It's a lot easier for leaders to pass someone by without disciplining them or firing them than it is to fire them. It is important that people don't get harassed and that they don't get bullied. You need a perfect storm of elements to get an organization to work on it.
A book on the history of exploration was something that you had been thinking about. Do you agree with the idea of exploration?
I wonder if we take a little bit for granted, especially those of us who are interested in space exploration, that we can do so much exploration of our solar system solely in the service of science.
Science wasn't the motivator for exploration in the past. It was science that came as a ride along. The gentleman companion to the captain of the ship was Charles Darwin. It didn't have anything to do with discovering evolution or any kind of science.
There are a lot of examples where exploration was all about nationalism or heroism. We live in an amazing world where we can explore and learn more.
The first Europeans to go to Africa, what animals do they find, was a story I was so taken with as a child. I have the same copies of the books that I read.
When I got to college, I realized that women were never invited to do that work. It's great to have a world where women can lead exploration. It's not just women, it's where are you in the economic ladder, what is the color of your skin compared to other people, all those things that can hold people back.
Exploration's history of exclusion doesn't mean that other people don't want to explore. It's a little more complicated when you scratch the surface of a shiny world.
Space.com asked what they hoped people would get out of the book.
The thing that I'm hoping is that there will be some human connection for everybody, that we will all have had some common experience, and so it will almost feel like meeting a person. That would make me happy. There is an aspect of encouragement for people who are coming along in their careers that they don't have to know everything from the beginning. It's a good place to be when you're happy.
Space.com wants to know if there's anything else you'd like to share with the public.
When I started writing the book, I realized that I was in a mess when I was in my twenties. I was a single mom and I had a lot of things going on that I needed to work on. I don't think there was much about me that said I was going to be effective at that time.
It's good for me to remember that sometimes people don't shine as brightly as they could and that with some support and encouragement, amazing things can happen. Look past the first impression you have of a person and see what they have to offer.
"A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman" is available on Amazon and Bookshop.org.
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