In less than 100 days, NASA plans to launch an unmanned spacecraft on a 4-year mission to asteroid 16 Psyche more than 250 million miles away. If the trip is successful, it will be the first exploration of a world not made of rock or ice but of metal.
The woman leading this effort is Professor Linda Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator of NASA’s Discovery program Psyche mission. The hard-earned effort took him six years to secure, with an ambitious program to explore the building blocks of planet formation.
A member of the National Academy of Sciences, she is only the second woman to lead a NASA mission. Fittingly, she even has an asteroid named after her, 8252 Elkins-Tanton.
The pioneering scientist – who also heads Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration – has published her first memoir, “A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman”.
She recently spoke to Know Your Value about her unlikely journey in planetary science, overcoming personal struggles with childhood trauma, and shared tips for navigating gender bias in science leadership.
Know your worth: Who is this book for and why did you write it now?
Elkins-Tanton: This book aims to go beyond what people expect of you. When I was younger, I didn’t expect to be very efficient or able to make a difference.
At 30, I was a single, recently divorced mother with a 3-year-old son. I had two jobs and was thinking of going back to graduate school. I was not a model of success in scientific research; I was already 10 years late. But I put my nose to the grindstone, and when I looked up again, I was in a better place. I learned that determination and perseverance really matter, just like your grandmother told you.
This story isn’t about the completion of NASA’s Psyche mission – it’s about the winding paths that have brought me and the team this far. It’s the story of one foot in front of the other, which I think we can all relate to.
Know Your Worth: Tell us about your non-traditional career path. Have you ever seen yourself in the field of space exploration?
Elkins-Tanton: Who knew that the path to the forefront of scientific leadership would go through desperation, a strong desire to be a good parent, and perhaps a little guilt and anger?
Some children know as soon as they look through a telescope and see Saturn, or watch “Star Trek,” that they want to study the solar system and the universe. Not me.
Rather than jumping straight from my undergraduate degree to my doctorate, which is necessary for the chairs and leadership positions I ended up holding in academia, I went into business. I realized, in retrospect, that much of my curiosity was about how teams of people could become more than the sum of individuals.
So I had a winding career path: I worked for the management consultancy Touche Ross, US News & World Report, and ran my own business consultancy before returning to scientific research.
But a winding career path can be a great asset, it’s the knowledge that most people in a field don’t have that can transform that field.
An example is my learning about budgets, forecasts, and teams while doing management consulting and then bringing that to academic science. I learned to believe that who I am and what I value is enough to bring to the table.
Eventually, I became too committed to education, too enamored of asking harder questions in research, and too enamored of discovery. I stayed in academia and had the good fortune to lead a space mission for NASA.
Know Your Worth: Have you experienced impostor syndrome?
Elkins-Tanton: Yes, I definitely had impostor syndrome, this feeling that I don’t really deserve the good things that happen professionally and that I doubt my abilities. I suspect that most people who are sensitive to the thoughts and actions of others have experienced these moments.
I largely solved it by being content with who I am and what I have to offer. If I inhabit myself authentically, what can go wrong? However, last year when I was elected to the National Academy of Sciences – a very big honor – I suddenly thought, “Wow, now I really am a scientist, forever. That’s a high bar to reach to feel authentically like a scientist! Perhaps there are still some hidden pockets of impostor syndrome.
Know your worth: What have been some of the challenges you have faced as a woman scientist?
Elkins-Tanton: As a young businesswoman and as a young scientist, I generally had good experiences. But I’ve also received cutting remarks that really stuck with me and made me doubt, like the time my high school math teacher told me that I didn’t really understand math and that I wouldn’t enter never at MIT.
And when I came to MIT in 1983, undergraduates generally thought women were less worthy of being there than men.
Greater gender-related challenges have come to me in leadership positions. Senior management in most organizations is always a group of like-minded men with the same background and attitudes.
For high-level leadership, integration can be the final hurdle. To fit into the group closest to the highest leader, who almost always looks and acts like that highest leader. How to say the right things to fit in? How to dress correctly, sit correctly? It can be very, very difficult for women or people of color or different backgrounds to be selected to join these groups.
Know your worth: You are integrating some very difficult experiences from your youth, including being sexually abused as a child. How did you recover?
Elkins-Tanton: Writing the story of my childhood was a particular challenge. I can say this from the perspective of a happy child with pets and an interesting and eccentric family, enough money, good schools. Or I can say it as a chain of nightmares, anxiety and depression, health issues and sexual assault. But can’t each of us tell our story in at least two ways? It’s about how we behave and feel each day after, what we’ve learned, and our determination to move forward.
For me, talk therapy has been very effective. During this therapy, I took antidepressants and they helped me a lot. Once I resolved enough that my symptoms were gone, I stopped taking the prescription, and haven’t needed anything for 20 years now. These therapies really solved my problems, but I wasn’t ready to start this work until my late twenties.
Know your worth: The gender gap in college leadership is still surprisingly wide. Talk about changing the culture around gender bias in academia.
Elkins-Tanton: Gender gaps in positions of prestige or power are caused by prejudice. Explicit bias, where people are aware of their biases and voluntarily act on them, is bad enough. Implicit biases, the unconscious biases we all carry, are pernicious and surprisingly powerful, and dauntingly difficult to correct.
In 2021, Yuhao Dao, Jessica Nordell, and Kenneth Joseph built a simple model of how implicit biases applied during performance reviews create a deficit of women at the top of organizations.
They showed that even if you start with a 50:50 ratio of males to females in the C-suite, if female performance is devalued by only 3%, then after 10 years there are no females left to The direction.
Combine that with a 2020 United Nations report that showed 90% of men and women are biased against women, and you can see it’s an uphill battle.
I talk about bias in my teams to try to lift the taboo. And it’s not a zero-sum game; each person is part of the “outgroup” at some point in their life. To create change, in the organizations I have known, we need discussions between the ranks and support for good leadership. In leadership, we need determination and ethics, as well as support and a willingness to listen from the ranks. It takes everyone.