Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton: let go of the myth that a successful scientist follows a certain path
Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton is the Director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC. Lindy has a Ph. D. in Geology and Geophysics, an M.S. in Geochemistry, and B.S. in Geology, all from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Prior to DTM, Lindy was a professor at MIT, a research scientist at Brown University, and a lecturer at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, in addition to spending time in the business world. Lindy is an expert in planet formation and evolution, specifically planetary differentiation. On Monday, March 18, Lindy will be giving a talk titled “On Building an Earth-Like Planet” as the Masursky Lecture at the 44th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, TX.
Kat Gardner-Vandy, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, interviewed Lindy for the 51+ Women in Planetary Science series at the idyllic campus of DTM. Here are snippets of their conversations that day:
Looking at your CV, I see an interesting career path that led to Carnegie. You were at MIT several times, had eight years in business, and taught at a small college. Tell us the story of your journey.
After my undergraduate and master’s degrees at MIT, I went away and worked in business for eight years, and I wasn’t sure if I was coming back. I had my fun, but I got bored. So, I got a job at St. Mary’s College, a public Honors College in Maryland, where they hired me as a lecturer in mathematics. During that process, I decided I had to get my terminal degree and go back into academia. I decided that was the place where one was never bored. There was no limit to how much you could challenge yourself. It was really up to you whether you made it or not. In academia, you have fewer constraints about how far and how fast you move and what you can do with your time. It’s unusually free and unusually challenging, and I really found that intoxicating, so I decided to go back and get my doctorate. I was not sure at that moment if I could get into a competitive school, being out that long. I had completely accepted and digested this myth that if you are a serious scientist, you go straight through. You don’t take time off, and you don’t deviate, and you show you are dedicated, and all your best discovers happen before you are 15, and whatever! For me, that turned out to not be true at all. I was accepted to MIT for my PhD, and I started when I was 31, exactly 10 years after I graduated with my undergraduate and master’s degrees.
I started the graduate program on the same week that my son started kindergarten. I was a single mother at that time. It was challenging, but I had very understanding faculty. My perception was that I had to work harder to prove that I was productive when I was not there physically. Because the way the department was, you arrived first thing in the morning and you stayed until the night, and you came in on the weekends, you had beers with everyone, and I just could not do that. I found I needed to be more efficient, and I felt like I needed to be more productive to show that I could make it. I was older, I had departed academia, and I came back with a child. But people were incredibly supportive, and I am immensely grateful to everyone at MIT for making that possible.
How did you find the efficiency that you needed?
I think it’s the same things that we all learn when we take care of children: just because you don’t have any other demands at the moment, does not mean you can afford to sit down and drink your coffee. If you have five minutes, you are answering those emails, writing a draft of your letter, whatever it is. I did not feel like I could go lunch on the quad or sit around chatting, and of course, I did some days, everyone has up or down days, but I think that I really tried to pack it in most of the time. I kept in mind my most top priority things at that moment and then tried to not waste time. To this day, I cannot make myself have lunch with everyone every day, even though I know it’s the social thing to do. I look at that entire hour, and I think: I could eat my yogurt and granola bar and write an introduction! You do have to balance those things because we need the social relationships. And talking to someone about science other than your computer monitor is a good idea!
What happened after graduate school?
I finished my degree, and I went off and did a postdoc at Brown University. Mark Parmentier and Paul Hess each had a semester of funding for me. And then I was on my own as a research associate. I was allowed to be a PI at Brown to write proposals, and that is how I survived. So I wrote proposals, and I funded myself for four more years. It was a great opportunity for me because I learned a lot about writing proposals. I didn’t have a million job offers. I had one that I turned down because it would have been really bad for my son to move at that time, and I was dedicated to keeping him in his school. I was commuting from Boston, MA to Providence, RI and that was hard and nerve-wracking. I was older than the average candidate, and I had a very broadly interdisciplinary set of topics that made me seem very risky to people. You know: “Is she going to do anything important, or is she going to dabble in these fields and trickle away?” I actual gave up in the end; I really thought I was never going to get an academic job. I was in the process of sending my resume back into industry when I got the offer at MIT. It was saving me at the last minute. It was an all-or-nothing thing. It was just crazy! So I suppose it is not very comforting for those on the job front, but don’t give up!
What led to the transition from MIT to Carnegie?
Going back to MIT was truly my dream job. The people who knew me when I was an undergraduate and a graduate student welcomed me back as a colleague. I was junior faculty at MIT when my son was in junior high school, so there was a little more flexibility in terms of the amount of time he needed me. I was at MIT for five years. I was not looking for jobs, because I thought, if they would have me, I would stay there forever. Then somebody came to me and said, “Lindy, they are looking for someone to take Sean Soloman’s job at Carnegie.” They needed a new director (directors are required in the bylaws to step down at age 65) and were wondering if they could put me in the pool of people to consider. In fact, I had seen that job advertisement, and it never occurred to me to see myself in that job. I say that purposefully because I think it’s a bit of a gender thing. I think it’s important to remind other women that you don’t always get invited; sometimes you have to imagine yourself in the job and go for it. Assume that you are right for it! Do what I didn’t do. So, I was flattered, and I thought I’d get to meet some people, get my name out, I told MIT I had been approached. And then I got shortlisted! And it got serious. And then I got the offer! I was seriously surprised. It was a very, very hard decision. I talked to everyone in our department, the chair, the dean, the president of MIT. I finally decided it was too good to be turned down, and I needed to give it a try. I went with a lot of joy and gratitude and also some sadness. I really miss the department, but I’m very glad to be here at Carnegie.
You’ve been at Carnegie about a year and a half. Is it what you expected?
I really tried to do my homework ahead of time and understand the job and know what the challenges were, but of course, you can’t ever know everything. The thing that has been most consistent with my expectations is that the scientists here are really pleasant to work with. I’m continually thinking and talking about the way people behave in science. There are departments where you and I wouldn’t want to work because, frankly, people are really nasty to each other, and there doesn’t seem to be any natural curb to some of that behavior. It’s interesting to me because I think a critical thing in science is to be pushed all the time. We all have the ability in ourselves to be lazy or not quite as rigorous or not ask the hardest questions. We need colleagues who are continually challenging us, asking “How do you know that? Have you checked this?” It’s so much better for all of us in science if we are pushed to our limits at all times. But that does not always lead to great interpersonal relations. The thing I’m struck by here is not only the high productivity and excellent science, but also the way people get along. I keep asking the staff scientists (of which there are 15) how they keep that culture over the decades of people being pleasant and collegial. They say they pick people for that very thing: you choose people who do good science and are going to get along. Someone else said: you have to forgive and you have to forget. That’s hard to do! But the willingness of people to say that out loud is really wonderful.
Before I came, I sent an email around to the staff scientists asking them about the big science questions they are working on, where they want to be in five years, what equipment and personnel they need to get there, etc. I was hoping to get a sense of the budget because we are very free as directors to decide what to do with our budgets. So, I get this email back from the geochemistry group, of which there are five senior scientists, all of them ridiculously productive, and they write back to say: “Lindy, we need a couple of days for this because Wednesday is the first day we could all get together and agree on our five-year plan.” I read this email with my eyes boggling because I didn’t ask them to do this together. That’s just how they work. They work together as groups here; all three groups (geochemistry, geophysics, and astronomy) do. It’s just great. They wanted to decide together what to do with the resources.
How is your position at Carnegie different than being a professor at MIT?
This is a very different job than what I had. It’s quite differently structured. Staff scientists here do not have calendars full of meetings and classes. We have almost no standing committees. Some of the only regularly scheduled meetings here, as it has been for over 20 years, are the weekly seminars and smaller reading groups. When I came in, I said I’d like to have a once-a-month, one-hour only staff meeting with the staff scientists. We’ve never run over one hour. I still had several people come to me and say they don’t like having a regularly scheduled meeting on the calendar! I’m trying to not come in like a tidal wave and change everything, but instead really understand what this place is.
How much do you get to do research in addition to being the department head?
That’s the big question! Sean told me he was able to spend a lot of time on science, but he had been running this place for years and had it like he wanted it, and he was running MESSENGER, so he had no choice. For me, especially having spent 8 years in business, there were things about management and structuring that I wanted to do differently. For example, right away I wanted to spend an hour speaking individually with every person on my staff, about 60 people, which takes a lot of time. I also needed to understand the budget and finance and how headquarters runs. For the first 9 or 10 months, I worked harder than I ever have before, harder than being junior faculty at MIT. I learned a lot and began to understand what I could and should change and what I should leave alone. Since then, I have added in science to my schedule more and more. I went into the field last summer for several weeks! Now I’m able to set aside some research time in my schedule, and I’ve been able to write a few papers and be co-author on a few more, so my publications haven’t gone to zero, which is reassuring.
How do you fit the writing into your schedule?
I either shut my office door, or I write on the weekends. For example, my husband is just as involved in his job as I am in mine, so we go to a nearby coffee shop that’s just a big room with comfy chairs and bring our laptops and work together. It’s totally fun! It’s like a work date. We completely enjoy ourselves. But, I am behind on other things, and I try not to push deadlines. I certainly do not have all the answers and am eager to learn from everybody. The problem is that the time you have gets broken up into smaller and smaller chunks, and you cannot do science in a little tiny piece. You need the time to really get your head into it and make some progress. So, I try to set aside 2 or 3 hour blocks. The weeks I can’t do it in the office, I do it at home, either at night or on the weekend.
Do you have any other advice for young scientists?
I have heard people say, “I’m not sure I want to work that hard,” especially junior faculty because there is an idea that it is a hell-hole of difficult work. You can either stress about it and feel terrible, or thrive on it and feel unbelievably fortunate. It depends a lot on your colleagues and your internal self, and far be it for me to tell anybody who’s miserable that they are not miserable. But what good fortune we have, especially as a woman, that we were born not only in this time period but in this place on Earth. Any other place and any other time and we would have never had this opportunity. We would be bored all the time and depressed and then cruel to our families. I really believe in working harder being better than working less. I worry that some people don’t go for it out of a sense of fear. Either they feel like imposters, or they fear they won’t hack it, or if they put themselves out there, they’ll be judged. Maybe those things will happen, but honestly it doesn’t matter. Be your own internal monitor. Ask yourself: is this the best I can do? How can I do better? What can I do now so that in 10 years when I look back on this, I’ll be proud of myself? We can’t do this all the time, but in the end, we need to try to make sure we are doing the right thing.
What are you short-term and/or long-term goals for DTM?
My first answer to this question is always: you cannot tell scientists what to work on. You have to let people go with their absolute best. The great thing about this place is you get the freedom to work on what you please. But I also think that the most fruitful way forward with the highest impact is to work in interdisciplinary fields. One thing we have here is people who study planet formation and exoplanets through astronomy, and we have people who study planet formation here through geochemistry, cosmochemistry, and geophysics. I think of this department as three different circles, and I want to push them together like a Venn diagram, and there’s a sweet spot in the middle where people overlap and share. One thing we are in the process of kicking off is the Carnegie Origins Initiative, which is something we’ve started between our department, Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, and the Geophysical Lab next door. It brings together an amazing spectrum of scientists to look at problems of origins: origins of planets, of life, and of the universe. Why do we at Carnegie think we can do this uniquely well? We have two things that give us special opportunities compared to other programs. One is trust and collegiality. We had our first big kick-off workshop, and people came in from California, and we filled our lecture hall. We brainstormed for two days, and everyone felt completely free to say their new ideas and see what everyone else thought and build collaborations. Second, we have some endowment money for instrument development so we can make new observations that haven’t been made before. There’s such a history here; so much has been built on this campus.
I don’t have any intentions to totally change the direction of DTM. It would require a huge amount of personnel disruption and I don’t see anything to validate that in terms of the productivity and happiness of the staff. People here are doing very important, productive science.
The other thing I wanted to mention is our new Postdoctoral Development Program. For women in particular, the postdoc is the leakiest part of the pipeline. There is often insufficient mentoring because you are supposed to be an independent research scientist. And indeed you are, but you have a very narrow amount of time to make a gigantic leap into your next job. You have to think about moving, you’re starting your family, you have to do the most high-impact work you’ve ever done and show you aren’t your advisor’s minion anymore. I know I thought about my next job 24 hours a day. It was a constant pressure. One thing I want to do here at DTM is make sure our postdocs are as prepared as they possibly can be, so we have these regular workshops: interviewing, giving talks, how to write a proposal, how to talk to the press, how to be a good mentor or leader, etc. These are questions everyone needs to think about but almost never have the opportunity to do. We highly encourage our postdocs to practice their job talks for everybody. We are in the process of making a new website to make notes of these workshops more accessible, so stay tuned.
Thank you for your time, Lindy, and many thanks for a wonderful visit at DTM!