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Lindy Elkins-Tanton has head in the stars, feet on the ground

It's all about the discovery for Lindy Elkins-Tanton.
February 17, 2022

Psyche mission's principal investigator is 1 of 4 new Regents Professors for 2022

Editor's note: On June 24, 2022, NASA announced that the Psyche mission will not make its planned 2022 launch attempt due to the need for more time to ensure that the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment will function properly in flight.

The Zoom call is less than a minute old, and already Lindy Elkins-Tanton is wondering what all the fuss is about.

“I feel a little embarrassed to be singled out,” she says.

Embarrassed? Let’s see.

Elkins-Tanton, the vice president of the Arizona State University Interplanetary Initiative, was chosen as one of four Regents Professors for 2022, the highest faculty honor one can achieve.

She’s the principal investigator for the Psyche mission, the 14th in NASA’s Discovery program, and only the second woman chosen to lead a competitive planetary science mission. Psyche is scheduled for liftoff in August, the unmanned spacecraft on a four-year journey bound for the Psyche asteroid 280 million miles away.

She’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences, she has far too many awards and recognitions to mention, she has written six books and, oh, by the way, she once was a competitive show jumper, ran a sheep farm, led field expeditions to Siberia and trained border collies.

Embarrassed? A fuss?


“For me, she is an example of what a professor should be,” said Sally C. Morton, vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise. “She’s a real role model for all of us in higher education.”

To get to know Elkins-Tanton — to truly get to know her — one has to go back to Ithaca, New York, where she grew up.

Her parents gorged on discovery. They took Elkins-Tanton to museums and the opera so she could learn about art and music. She identified plants and memorized their Latin names, collected moths and picked up fossils when the family hiked the Finger Lakes trails.

“You were expected to be curious about stuff, and it was a source of great joy,” said Elkins-Tanton, who is also a Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Elkins-Tanton did not aspire to be a scientist in those early years. She was a competitive horseback rider — “the soul of my life,” she said — who dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. But then she realized that horses didn’t take kindly to visits from a veterinarian and, well, that career choice was no longer an option.

It was music, ultimately, that shoved Elkins-Tanton toward science and space. She played the flute in high school and thought about going to a music conservatory. But there were limits, she knew, to her talent.

“I could have been a really nice flute teacher, teaching lessons in a town,” she said. “But I was never going to be a soloist or anything. I was never good enough. I was just as interested in space as I was everything else growing up. So I thought I’d go into science.”

Hardly typical

One other thing you should know about Elkins-Tanton: She’s not your typical scientist or academic type.

Henry Stone has worked in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for 34 years. He has worked alongside hundreds, if not thousands, of scientists and engineers. Yes, he said, the cliché is true: The best scientists often don’t have the best people skills.

Elkins-Tanton, however, is the best of both worlds.

“She is a unique combination of an incredibly intelligent person in the scientific and academic-related communities, but she understands the importance of personal relationships,” said Stone, the project manager for the Psyche mission. “She’ll hear of somebody anywhere on the team, a death in the family, some other situation, and she’s always conscious to reach out and share in a very, very authentic way her concern for that person.”

Morton saw the same thing at an outdoor, COVID-safe Christmas lunch held by the School of Earth and Space Exploration in 2021. Elkins-Tanton knew the names of all the students at the lunch, what they were working on and when they were graduating.

“When you talk to her, you don’t feel overwhelmed by just the brain and what she’s capable of,” Morton said. “There’s this delightful softness in her demeanor.”

That personal touch extends to Elkins-Tanton’s work as Psyche’s principal investigator. Typically, Stone said, the scientists and engineers working on a NASA project hold separate meetings. Elkins-Tanton made it clear from the start that’s not the way she wanted to do things. She insisted on a collaborative effort and wanted to hear from anyone who had something to say.

“There’s a lot of times you get teams with a lot of smart people together and you get too many egos that are fighting with each other,” Stone said. “It’s not always a fun place to be. She spends a lot of conscious effort thinking and talking with me about what we can do on the project to ensure that the interactions are professional and always constructive.

“I will never forget coming out of those first few meetings where scientists were coming to me and literally like, 'I’ve never done this before. This is incredible. I’ve never understood or realized (from an engineering standpoint) how complicated and tricky it can be to design these systems.’

“That is an example of a small thing you can do to bring such a collaborative environment to the whole team that I’ve never seen done before on any mission.”

Stone said Elkins-Tanton also created a more diverse team; he recalled a meeting of engineers in which 50% of the attendees were women. He said he could count on one hand the number of times that has occurred in his three-decade career.

For Elkins-Tanton, being just the second woman to lead a competitive planetary science mission is an honor, as well something she’d rather not dwell on.

“I still really hate being introduced as a woman scientist because of the implication that I’m very good among a secondary class of goodness,” she said. “I don’t appreciate that.”

That said, Elkins-Tanton appreciates that her position as the principal investigator is an important message to other women in her field. On the morning of her interview with ASU News, she spoke by Zoom to two classrooms of eighth grade students and pointed out the select company she was in.

“For a lot of young women, they’ve never had anyone in their life point to them and say, ‘You can do it.’ It actually does make a huge difference," she said. "We do look for mentors who remind us of ourselves.”

Elkins-Tanton will spend the next several months in Pasadena before leaving for Cape Canaveral in Florida and the scheduled liftoff in August. Her days are filled with successes, problems and challenges — and meetings to talk about all three.

But when the rare quiet moment comes, Elkins-Tanton allows herself to think ahead; to think of that day in August when the countdown is started and the rockets are fired and the spacecraft launches into the sky, destined for an asteroid that orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter and is the size of Massachusetts.

“I think it might just be the most exciting moment ever,” she says, her smile wide. “I mean, we (the Psyche team) fought for six years to win this mission, which is a long time to fight for a mission. But the great thing is that you’re not winning a prize, but the opportunity to do something really hard. So that launch, when it comes, is not a prize. It’s the opportunity to explore.”

Just like her days as a child.

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

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Study: Sunken ships ideal habitat for reef-building corals

February 17, 2022

An hour and a half before sunrise on the morning of Feb. 17, 1944, 500 U.S. Navy Grumman Hellcats swarmed the Japanese base at Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia, the South Pacific.

Merchant tankers, ammunition ships, a cruiser, an auxiliary cruiser, two destroyers and a minesweeper tried desperately to escape. American submarines destroyed vessels outside the lagoon while torpedo bomber and dive bomber squadrons caught ships at anchor, sending them to the bottom in minutes. By the end of the next day, 39 ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy lay in watery graves.

Today the collection of wrecks has been called one of the great underwater marvels of the world. It’s a signature destination for divers.

And now they may be coming as much for the coral reefs that have formed on the wrecks as the ships themselves. Half the world’s coral reefs have been lost since the 1950s due to climate change, overfishing and pollution.

A new study led by Arizona State University ecologist Greg Asner suggests that very large wrecks can serve as havens for reef-building corals, which are as diverse as corals found on neighboring natural reefs. Large artificial reefs could protect coral biodiversity from warming surface waters. The study was published Wednesday in the journal Diversity.

Asner, the director of ASU's Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, and his team conducted their study at Chuuk Lagoon and Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. tested 23 nuclear bombs between 1946 and 1958.

Asner has surveyed and dived all of the major coral reefs in the world, often many times over. He directs the world's largest coral reef mapping program, called the Allen Coral Atlas. He had already surveyed natural coral reefs in the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, extremely diverse in corals. 

“Amazing places,” Asner said. “So, when I got the funding to assess whether or not deep sunken ships could add to the coral diversity of a region, I thought, ‘This is pretty far out there and could be a total flop.’”

At Bikini Atoll, the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga was sunk in 1946. (The government was curious what an atomic bomb would do to a fleet.)

USS Saratoga being sunk at Bikini Atoll by atomic bomb 1946

Aerial view of the Baker atomic test, less than one second after the detonation. Identifiable ships are (left to right): USS Pensacola (CA-24), USS Saratoga (CV-3), USS Pennsylvania (BB-38), the former Japanese battleship Nagato, USS New York (BB-34) and USS Salt Lake City (CA-25). Some 75 years later, scientists are studying how those sunken ships are providing a home to flourishing coral colonies. Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

On the first dive in the lagoon, as the team descended to the flight deck of the Saratoga, Asner thought of all the work that had made the expedition possible.

“My thought was, ‘This is an important moment in a multi-year plan, fundraising and epic trip to get to this remote place where atomic bombs had been tested.’” It's more than 5,300 miles from Tempe, Arizona, to Bikini Atoll.

When the flight deck came into view, he saw a vast expanse of steel, big gun turrets, the superstructure of the aircraft carrier.

“And then pop, a coral colony, and pop, another coral colony, and pop, another one. But even then, I wasn't sure what we would get,” he said. “My dive team rushed (because of the extreme depth) to survey, and I ran the longest survey video transects using a rebreather for deep diving.

“After 30 to 45 minutes on the bottom and another three hours of decompression going up, we got back to the ship, started downloading the files to make rough estimates, and only then did it dawn on us that we were going to have some major results. And on and on it went, from ship to ship across Bikini Atoll ... and then again on a monthlong trip in Chuuk Lagoon.”

Decaying depth charges on the deck of the USS Lamson (destroyer), Bikini Atoll

Decaying depth charges on the deck of the USS Lamson (destroyer), Bikini Atoll. Photo courtesy Greg Asner/ASU

Asner and his team identified 34 groups of coral species at Bikini and 51 groups at Chuuk.

The length of the ship — not the depth of the water it lay in — appeared to correlate with how abundant and rich the coral was.

The study noted an important characteristic of these artificial reefs is that they lie at depths that have so far escaped the typical depth of marine heat waves, the main driver of coral mortality across the globe.

WATCH: Asner's team making a dive at Bikini Atoll

Corals grow on a large gun aboard the USS Arkansas (battleship), Bikini Atoll

Corals grow on a large gun aboard the USS Arkansas (battleship), Bikini Atoll. Photo courtesy Greg Asner/ASU

"As the world's oceans continue to undergo rapid climate change, we need to understand every possible way that corals might survive,” Asner said. “Extremely large artificial reefs may provide some assistance in an otherwise bleak future for corals in their natural environment.

"Despite all the effort put forward by my team and I on these epic deep shipwrecks, we still do not yet know the full potential of artificial reefs to assist in the fight to save corals from ongoing severe ocean climate change,” he added. “We need many more dives on shipwrecks around the world in order to develop a true biological geography of artificial reefs."

A coral community attached to the barrel of a large anti-aircraft gun on the USS Saratoga (aircraft carrier), Bikini Atoll

A coral community attached to the barrel of a large anti-aircraft gun on the USS Saratoga (aircraft carrier), Bikini Atoll. Photo courtesy Greg Asner/ASU

Where would ships worthy of sinking be found? The study reported that the National Defense Research Institute has identified more than 350 current U.S. Navy and Maritime Administration ships that would require government-funded disposal in the next 20 years. Converting the vessels into artificial reefs would be the cheapest approach.

The Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii, also contributed to the study.

Greg Asner at Bikini Atoll. Photo by Rick Miskiv

Team member Chris Balzotti at Bikini Atoll. Photo by ALAB photographer Rick Miskiv

 Top image: Keel of the Japanese battleship Nagato, Bikini Atoll. Photo courtesy Greg Asner/ASU

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News