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Dr. Ellen Stofan: In many cases careers are not linear!

September 13, 2022

This interview was conducted by Mikayla Huffman (see more information at the end of this interview) and Kelsi Singer. 

Ellen R. Stofan, PhD

Dr. Ellen Stofan is the Under Secretary for Science and Research at the Smithsonian.  She oversees its science research centers as well as the National Museum of Natural History and the National Zoo. The Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, Office of International Relations, Smithsonian Scholarly Press and Scientific Diving Program also report to Stofan. Her focus is the Smithsonian’s collective scientific initiatives and commitment to research across the Institution, especially addressing issues such as biodiversity, global health, climate change, species conservation, astrophysics and the search for life outside Earth’s solar system.

Previously, Stofan was the John and Adrienne Mars Director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (2018–2021) where she was the first woman to hold that position. Under her leadership, the museum began its seven-year renovation of its flagship building in Washington, D.C., in 2018. Stofan also oversaw the momentous celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing in July 2019 at the museum and on the National Mall.  She joined the Museum in 2018 with more than 25 years of experience in space administration and planetary science. Dr. Stofan was previously Chief Scientist at NASA.

She also held senior scientist positions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including work on missions exploring Venus, Earth, Mars, and Saturn; as chief scientist – New Millennium Program; and principal investigator on the proposed Titan Mare Explorer. Dr. Stofan holds master’s and doctorate degrees in geological sciences from Brown University, and a bachelor’s degree from the College of William & Mary. She is an honorary professor at University College London, and was on the board of the College of William & Mary.

Ellen R. Stofan, PhD, stands in front of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 5B Vega at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, June 26, 2018. (NASM photo by Jim Preston) [NASM2018-01471]
  • Both Ellen and Mikayla attended William & Mary for their undergraduate work, so that was a fun connection for this interview! 😊

1. How did you first become interested in astronomy and planetary science in general?

My story is not at all a typical story. I always really liked science, but there were so few women role models to look toward that I didn’t really know what kind of scientist I wanted to be. My biggest heroine at that point was Mary Leakey, so I thought I wanted to be an archeologist.  This was the 1960s, and there were all these articles about the work she was doing on human origins.  My mother was an elementary school science teacher, and while she was getting her master’s degree in Ohio, she took a geology course.  I was probably ten or eleven, and she asked the professor if I could come because I was always picking up rocks.  I thought the idea that you could use rocks to read the past was just really cool!

My dad worked for NASA, but everybody who worked at NASA looked like my dad. They were all engineers, and so at the time, I didn’t associate science with NASA.  But when I was fourteen, my dad was in charge of the rocket that launched the Viking landers.  We were down at the Cape for about a month for the launch, and they put on a program for the families with all the mission scientists talking about why we were going to Mars.  Carl Sagan was there and gave a talk about why we were going to Mars, the geology of Mars, and how that helped us understand Earth and searching for life on Mars.  And I was hooked.

It goes back to the issue of role models and the importance of what Marian Wright Edelman said: “you can’t be what you can’t see.” I very much felt like that.

It’s also good to keep in mind the idea that when you go talk to kids, you never know whose life you might be changing. You just don’t know. And so, when people ask me to talk to kids, my answer’s always yes, because having the chance to really change the trajectory of one kid’s life is pretty impressive. Carl Sagan changed the trajectory of a lot of people’s lives.

2. What specific skills did you pick up in undergrad that have served you the best during your career?

I came to William & Mary and I was like, “I’m eighteen years old, and I’m going to be a planetary geologist and get a PhD in geology” and they were like, “cool. What can we do to help?” And that was their attitude across the department from the beginning.  This is probably the time when I was most vulnerable to someone doubting me, where someone telling me, “you can’t do this” might have made me turn around and leave. I give them huge credit for totally supporting me and where I wanted to go.

Another thing that I am glad I took advantage of is hands on research as an undergrad, which now is very typical, but back in the eighties it was much less typical.

3. What was your first job after graduate school?

The first job I had was on the National Research Council.  I was an NRC postdoc at JPL, and it was amazing timing.  I had worked on Soviet Venus data at Brown, looking at coronae on Venus. About five months later, Magellan went into orbit around Venus, and I got to work on all that data.  I got handed this type of feature that no one had seen before for my Ph.D. thesis,  and I got to go work on the first new images of them coming back from Magellan. I was just in the right place at the right time.

4. What was the biggest risk you took during your career path so far?

In the mid-90s my husband and I wanted to have a third child, and we were both working full time. We already had our hands full with two kids, and he was travelling all the time for work. He was gone about fifty or sixty percent of the time.  He works in investment and got the opportunity to go to London, and I was on a management track at JPL at that point. I was just finishing being the experiment scientist for the Shuttle Imaging Radar; I had been Deputy Project Scientist on Magellan; and I had just started as the Chief Scientist for the new Millennium Program.  I had less and less time to do research, and I was very much on this science management track.  He got this opportunity to go to London, and we were just having a really hard time making our lives work with two small children, let alone a third.

And so I said, “alright, let’s go to London for a couple of years.”  We ended up being there for five years. I knew scientist John Guest was on Magellan, and I wrote a note to John and said, “can I have a desk in a corner?”  I basically walked away from the management track, and I went to working 15-20 hours a week. And I did that for the next ten years.

At that point I thought it was an irreversible decision to say, “I’m just going to choose a different path. I’ll keep writing papers, but at a lower rate. I’ll keep trying to present at conferences. If someone asked me to be on a committee, the answer will always be yes, so I can stay visible,” but I thought I was really taking a step backward because I needed to make our family kind of work. And it worked.

So, I’m obviously a huge fan of not just work life balance, but also making sure that women (or anyone else!) can reenter the field.  So then if someone takes a step back, it becomes a step sideways, not a step back.  And then opportunities arise for women to come back in, because whether it’s your parents or children or some other situation, people’s lives are complicated.

In many cases careers are not linear, at least mine wasn’t!  I didn’t go back to work full time until I started working on the TIME proposal. That was probably 2007.  Then I was still working at home, but I was working crazy hours.

By the time I interviewed to be NASA Chief Scientist, I had worked in human spaceflight; I had worked in technology programs, Earth science, and planetary science; and I had dabbled with heliophysics and astrophysics with New Millennium. I had totally randomly, with no intent, built a resume by taking opportunities and following different ideas, even if they were challenging or not linear.

5. How do you manage all the different demands on your time? And how do you find time for your priorities outside of work?

It’s really hard, and with Covid it’s even harder.  I sit in this chair from eight in the morning until six or seven at night, and sometimes hardly get to move. And I do think it’s really hard, and I’m not good at it. And I’m not good at saying no. When I worked at NASA Headquarters, the person that managed all my international travel came in, and she wrote in huge letters on my board “Just say no!” When I took the job at Air & Space, I said to my assistant, “your job is to tell me to say no. That’s your job.” But she’s constantly on my case because I say yes.

When you have a job like mine, where I run two museums and a collection center, and I’ve got three hundred and fifty employees and an eighty-five million dollar budget, you’re like, “I’ve got to keep this whole enterprise running,” and people rely on you. How do you balance that with saying “I need to step back?”  

Another hard thing is that this job used to involve a ton of travel. Almost all the jobs I’ve had have required a ton of travel, and it just wears on you.  In a way, COVID has allowed me to break the cycle of constant travel, and I get to spend more time with my family.  I hope we can retain the good parts of how COVID changed our work and life balance.

6. What’s your favorite aspect about your current position as the director of the Air & Space Museum?

There are amazing things I get to be involved in – like one summer we did a show called “Go for the Moon” where we projected the Saturn V rocket on the Washington Monument. We replayed the history of Apollo on the monument, and we were trying to say, “how do you bring to life an event for a generation that was born after it happened?”  And so, we went big, obviously, with the Washington Monument. To watch the faces of little kids in the crowd, who were able to see a rocket launch up the Washington Monument- it was pretty impressive.  To be able to do things like that where you feel like “I’m really bringing this passion for space” is inspirational and motivational.  I’m trying to bring that to a generation of people who think it has nothing to do with them.

That is something that I find really rewarding with this job: for the good of this country and for the good of the people, we have to change the face of STEM to look more like the face of our population.  This job at Air & Space is an opportunity to help move the needle on that because I spent most of my career creating new scientific research or creating missions to go somewhere.  In this phase, I really wanted to say, “now, how can I look behind me and change this field?”

7. Do you have any additional advice you would share with early career scientist? 

I will say it’s your generation of women who’s really been speaking up and speaking out much more than my generation did. We were just “look down, look the other way, keep your head down, grit your teeth when people comment on your looks or your weight or whatever else.”

When I talk to groups of young women, one of the things I tell them is that I spent a lot of time beating myself up- “I’m not being a good enough scientist.  I’m not being a good enough mother.  I’m not being a good enough wife,” and in the end, you don’t have to be perfect at all those things, and it will still all work out.  When I see other mothers doing the same thing I did, which is just being super self-critical, I just want to tell them, “everything’s going to be fine.”

Thanks to Ellen for sharing these wondering insights from her amazing career to date! 🙂


About the interviewers: 

  • Mikayla Huffman recently graduated summa cum laude from the College of William & Mary with an honors degree in physics, honorary geology major, and a math minor. Her research has focused on impact physics, starting with numerical modeling of impacts onto icy bodies with Dr. Jon Kay at William & Mary. Mikayla helped out at JHU APL processing data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. She then began working with Dr. Kelsi Singer to characterize secondary impact cratering on the Moon & Mercury through NASA’s SUPPR program. She has also interned with NASA HQ & Goddard working on comet spectroscopy. Her honors thesis at William & Mary with Dr. Kelsi Singer and Dr. Marc Sher extended her SUPPR work to a new generation of craters- the secondaries of secondaries (aka tertiary) craters on the Moon. Mikayla will be pursuing a Ph.D. in Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at CU Boulder APS with Dr. Dave Brain. In her free time, she loves working on her 3D printer, caring for her ball python and bearded dragon, and playing Dungeons & Dragons.
  • Dr. Kelsi Singer is a Principal Scientist at the Southwest Research Institute office in Boulder, CO. She is also a Deputy Project Scientist on New Horizons and studies impact cratering and other geologic features across the solar system :).
One Comment leave one →
  1. Busola Olugbon permalink
    September 14, 2022 6:23 am

    This was an interesting piece. Thank you!

    On Wed, Sep 14, 2022 at 12:11 AM Women in Planetary Science: Female

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