Science as a way to heal and connect

In her new memoir, ASU scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton explores finding meaning through the wonders of the universe around us

A woman and a young woman are silhouetted against an image of the moon

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. A new launch period has since been announced: Oct. 5-25, 2023.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton has two launches on her calendar this year.

Most prominent is the launch of the Psyche spacecraft. Elkins-Tanton, a Regents Professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and vice president of ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative, is the principal investigator of the Psyche mission.

But before that is the book launch. On June 7, Elkins-Tanton’s memoir, “A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman,” will be released. It is the story of science as a place of healing, as a way of building a life philosophy — finding meaning through the wonders of the world and the universe around us.

ASU News talked with Elkins-Tanton about the book; read an exerpt from the book at the end of this article.

A woman looks to the right and smiles in an outdoor portrait

ASU Regents Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton is, among other things, the principal investigator of NASA's Psyche mission. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

Question: Why did you decide to write the book? It’s not as if you had a lot of extra time on your hands while you’re leading a NASA mission.

Answer: What I’m really hoping is that people who read the book feel a connection. I think that so many people are contemplating or have been along career paths like mine and encountered challenges like what I have, whether that’s gender, age, nationality or whatever. So, for me, it’s this motivation to try to connect with people, and I just hope that people say, “You know, I feel that, too.”

Q: When did you decide to take on the book, and how did you find time to write it?

A: It must have been three years ago, we were contemplating writing a book about exploration and putting in the unusual stories of exploration as opposed to the ones that we normally kind of get used to, like the heroes of the Golden Age and all that. And talking about the kinds of lessons that you take from exploration. I presented the idea to the agent I’m now working with, and she said, “Well, that’s really interesting, but I’m not totally in love with that book concept. But, Lindy, I love the parts of your story in there. What would you think about writing a memoir instead?” And that was just so exciting that somebody thought it would make a good story. So, no matter what came next, it was kind of irresistible to give it a try, and frankly, writing it was just a pleasure.

Q: You write about some very personal things, including your father’s anger and drinking, your brother being killed by a drunk driver, being raped as a child and your ensuing bouts of depression and anxiety. Why did you decide to not only write about those things, but go into the detail you did?

A: Part of it is, it’s just cathartic for me. But part of it is, I think, these are very common stories. I think everyone has experienced things like this. And I’m hoping that other people will hear that here’s one way somebody dealt with this and compare and contrast with their own process. Also, I have been really blessed with some lovely things happening on the job front. I’ve really been able to do some dream projects and work on some dream subjects. I think it’s possible that there’s still the notion that people who get to do those things have had a special entitled pathway. I’m sure it must be true sometimes, but my suspicion is that’s not true, that everyone has had things in their lives they’ve had to overcome.

Q: Is it your hope in writing about your childhood trauma that it might help others deal with whatever they’re going through?

A: Yes, but I try not to say it that way because it sounds condescending, like “I did this thing and maybe now you can do it.” Because I think everyone is overcoming their challenges in their own way. But, yes, seeing how someone else did it can be instructive. Maybe it helps someone feel less alone. Maybe it’s the feeling one gets when they read a story that feels familiar, and it’s a connection to humankind.

Q: I’m curious about how you see trauma shaping who you are today.

A: I think what I wrote about a little bit is that when I’m faced with something that I can’t stand the thought of, I’m immediately just like, “How am I going to get past this? This is unacceptable. I’m going to find the next step.” Because being in that situation and feeling trapped by the wrong outcome, I just have this visceral rejection of that. Is that caused by what happened to me in my childhood? I don’t know. I feel emotionally like it’s connected, but I don’t know. I definitely have a strong feeling that everybody has so much more in common than they have different. That comes, I think, along with my idea that I don’t really like setting up people as heroes or as special. The things that happened in my childhood or in my family — you don’t know that other people have had these same experiences, but I just suspect a lot of people have.

Cover of the book A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman by Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Q: There’s a part of your book that details a conversation you had with a friend. He had a difficult childhood as well and told you he became interested in astronomy because it made him realize there was something bigger out there. Did that sense of a bigger world than your childhood lead you to science in any way?

A: Not in that way. The thing that pulled me into science, other than just my general interest in the natural world and understanding what’s around me, was that sense of comfort of the geological timescale and that the world has been around for so long, and we are just this tiny flash and what actually happens to us in the every day, in this moment, literally doesn’t matter. I know for some people that’s terrifying and horrible, and for other people, that’s incredibly comforting. For me, it was very comforting. That lifelong journey of trying to get your arms around it and understand it is really beautiful.

Q: Beautiful in what way?

A: I think it’s beautiful because we humans do tend to get rooted in the here and now. (ASU President) Michael Crow and I had this conversation in which we were talking about people and how we’re all standing out in our yards, looking down at our dusty boots. If instead we would look up and out and understand what a tiny part in the whole universe we have and how united we really are on the Earth, that would be very inspiring.

Q: Part of your book details the implicit bias you encountered as the first female director of the Carnegie Institution and later on, at another school, how a chancellor didn’t take seriously your report of a co-worker bullying people and inappropriately touching women. Did you write that so other women could identify what you went through and perhaps not feel so alone?

A: Well, I didn’t write it specifically for women. In fact, I think it’s important for me to say that this book is not written for young women. I wrote it for humans, for all of us in leadership to look at our actions and to find ways to learn more about what’s happening with the people who are in our organizations that might otherwise be invisible to us, and to commit to equity and safety and put that at the head of the list of our responsibilities instead of at the tail end of the list of responsibilities. I think those are important lessons for me. I really decided that you’ve got to report if something happens, and if someone reports to you, you have to act. That’s really what I would love for people to see more clearly. Because the truth is, if a given person who’s a bad actor doesn’t act that way around you, then their actions are probably totally invisible to you. So, you have to listen to other people and understand what’s happening, because you’ll never know authentically yourself.

Q: You wrote about finding out you had ovarian cancer in 2014 while your team was in the middle of writing its first Psyche proposal. Was there a point during that time when you said to yourself, “How am I going to be able to deal with both of these things?”

A: I did feel like at times I was not succeeding at both, but it really was not possible to give up on either one. What happened was, I had such great support from people around me. Especially from ASU. I was brand new at ASU. Why would anybody trust or want to support me? But people were amazing and made it possible for me to focus only on the things that I absolutely had to do on my own. And just support for all the other things during that relatively limited number of months when I was really knocked out by chemotherapy.

Q: It’s interesting. When we’re going through difficulties, we try to put one foot in front of another and move forward. But when we look back at those times, we wonder how we got through it. Do you look back and ask that same question of yourself?

A: Not so much from the job front as from the personal front. There were a lot of days where, and I wrote about this a little bit, where just getting up and getting dressed was so hard that I could not imagine going to work. I was so exhausted and felt so sick and I was in so much pain. But I just couldn’t let myself think about that. You had to put a foot in front of the other. More than that, I had to just implicitly believe that the future was going to be better, and this was not going to last for a long time. This was a moment that I just had to get through.

Q: You go into great detail in the book about the Psyche team’s site visit with NASA, which is the most important step in the three-year proposal process. What do you remember from that day?

A: It really did feel like a giant game day. We all had to be perfect, like our uniforms even had to be right. We had to perform. The information had to be right. And the strategy had to be right. And the timing and the commitment and the emotion, all the things that go into what you think of as a win at that moment had to be right, with all 140 of us. We all had to be that way and we had to be on. I have just a vast enjoyment in moments like that, which are not without, you know, terror.

Q: It sounds like a lot of stress and anxiety.

A: But you’re so alive. You were living that moment, and you were 100% committed and everyone is with you. That intensity, that energy, is so fantastic.

Q: And then, after years of work, you were in Massachusetts when you got the phone call saying your proposal had won. Tell me about that moment.

A: I have such strong memories of what it was like to stand in the snowy forest in the silences, just the wind and the trees. We were kind of out in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t hear any cars or other houses or anything. The crunch of my boots on the snow and the way the cold air smelled, and the darkness of the trees. Emotionally, it was this purity of happiness of what was happening at the moment. I’m hoping that most people are better at joy than I am, but for me, there’s not that many really great joys in life that are totally devoid of worries or problems or issues. This was one of those beautiful moments, like the birth of a child or the moment I got married. It was another one of these very few absolutely crystalline moments of joy.

Q: Final question: What is the message you hope readers get from this book?

A: I hope that in some little way, maybe it could undo some of the fear and guilt narratives that we’re all living in the world right now. And give us all the feeling that I have, that people are smart and capable and we’re going to make progress. I think that would be the nicest thing that people could get.

Excerpt from Chapter 1

From "A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman" by Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Copyright 2022 by Linda Elkins-Tanton. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

All of us women were told at one point or another that we were at MIT on sufferance, that we were not really good enough. I was told that first by my high school math teacher when I was applying, and I was told it both explicitly and by implication many times along the way. But feeling desired for my physical body, feeling in demand for a date, that was easy and everyday. When we were freshmen, a male friend confided in me that they had joked behind my back about the “Lindy Lottery,” that is, the competition among the undergrad men to go out with me. Please understand, this had nothing to do with my being attractive, brilliant, or vivacious; it had to do with how few women there were and how many men. What was my value? Was it as a girlfriend, or as a scientist? Around this time, a female graduate student visited the home of one of our faculty, whose small child told her, “But you can’t be a scientist! You’re a girl!”

There was much conversation on campus about the gender ratio at the school. Many men and many women believed, and said out loud, that women were there because of a kind of affirmative action, and were not as accomplished or ready as the men. The admissions office even went so far as to publish SAT scores and other metrics to show that women deserved to be there. Still, the emotional response often felt more compelling than the data.

I needed to know if more of us felt as I did. I approached Professor Lotte Bailyn of the MIT Sloan School of Management about advising me while I created a survey of my fellow undergraduates about their attitudes around women in science, in general, and women at MIT, in particular. Professor Bailyn agreed to advise me, and with the help of Shirley McBay, dean of student affairs, and Lynn Roberson, from MIT’s Programs and Support for Women Students, I wrote and distributed a survey, and during my junior year, I learned how to process data in the statistical data program SPSS, analyzed the results, and I wrote a report.

The survey results showed that 46 percent of the women and 53 percent of the men felt that women were preferentially admitted. Though the Advisory Committee on Women Students’ Interests had shown in repeated studies that men and women performed equally well in their academics, only 55 percent of the women and 32 percent of the men were aware that this was so. Thus, a feeling pervaded campus that women did not belong at MIT. I felt the resulting “imposter syndrome” as acutely as anyone; even the all-male statues and bas-reliefs around campus seemed to be frowning. Another tedious stereotype my survey confirmed: 79 percent of women and 71 percent of men agreed that there was a strongly negative stereotype about MIT women, who were most often described with the adjectives “ugly” and “boring.”

The few ultra-confident aside, I quickly found that both men and women at MIT often felt like imposters. In the mid-eighties, nerds were not yet cool. In my coed dorm (at MIT dorms act as living groups and support systems for the duration of your undergraduate experience), we had an intense network of friendships and a wild round of activities. We did our homework together, writing on the chalkboards in empty classrooms at night; we brought crates of fruit from the Haymarket home on the T and had daiquiri parties; we muscled through impossible problem sets by working together in groups, often powered by raw chocolate-chip cookie dough.

I lived on Third East in the parallel dorms known as East Campus. My freshman year, the first building for MIT’s media lab was going up across the street. Pile-driving the foundations deep into the mud of the Charles River Basin caused coffee mugs to hop across their shelf in my room and smash on the old linoleum floor. The din of construction made sleeping late impossible and drove us away from the dorm for daytime studying. And so, of course, we had our revenge.

The media lab building’s famous architect, I.M. Pei, had added three squares of color — black, red, and yellow — to its otherwise white-tiled street face. Our floor had a trademark color, mint green. We started sneaking across the street at night and painting a fourth, matching square, in mint green. During the day, the construction team would take it off. We’d put it back. And then, the night before the grand opening and unveiling of the building, in 1985, we executed an MIT-level hack by painting it back on, under the noses of the guards placed specially for that night. Pei was startled but responded graciously when the mint square was unveiled with the rest the next day. 

Meanwhile, the feldspar data was adding up to a beautiful story. Tim invited me to make it a master’s thesis and I discovered I had sufficient credits to complete my bachelor’s in geology and concentration in women’s studies in seven semesters. I finished my graduate coursework and thesis in an eighth semester, and thus received the bachelor’s and master’s, respectively, in geology and geochemistry together at spring graduation 1987. At the end of the year, Tim submitted our work to a scientific conference, and invited me to be there and present it. My instant reaction was no. I was so terrified by the idea I did not even attend.

Asking questions, in fact, had become fraught. If I asked too many questions, I’d be viewed as weak. Asking questions implied ignorance, unacceptable at MIT. You were expected to have learned it already, or to figure it out on the fly. Asking a question risked revealing to others that you had missed something obvious, and that was a big risk to run. The one exception to this rule occurred during the weekly seminars given by visiting scientists. The faculty, grad students, and some undergrads would gather in the big room on the ninth floor of the Green Building to listen to some eminent researcher and then prove their intellectual worth afterward, on the battleground of questions and stinging comments.

One elder statesman was famous for waking from his nap, shouting, “That’s just poetry!” (a kind of über-insult implying flowery language with no substance), and then going on to eviscerate the speaker with a particularly insightful pseudo-question, that is, a statement phrased as a question but formulated to point out a fatal weakness. Questions were swords, not magnifying glasses.

What I needed was a magnifying glass question. If I wanted to be a scientist but was not yet ready, what was I ready for?

Top image: ASU Regents Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton (left) speaks with one of her students. Photo by ASU

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