Unlocking the Secrets of the Solar System
As the Chief Scientist for NASA, Ellen Stofan helped demolish barriers for women in science while working at the very frontiers of tech. In talks, she argues for greater diversity in the STEM fields, demonstrates why space exploration is crucial for innovation, and shows why studying our nearby planets is key to combating climate change here on Earth.
Dr. Ellen Stofan is the former Chief Scientist of NASA (2013–2016), where she served as principal advisor to the NASA Administrator on the agency’s science-related strategic planning and programs. This is a role Stofan worked toward her entire life—from observing her father innovate as a rocket scientist, to witnessing her first explosive rocket launch at the age of four, to listening to Carl Sagan describe what the Viking missions to Mars might accomplish for humanity, before finally becoming a planetary geologist in her own right and studying volcanic eruptions on Venus.
With NASA, Stofan has explored the atmosphere of Venus, studied the rocky surface of Mars, and examined the methane lakes of the surface of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons (in fact, as associate member of the Cassini Mission to Saturn Radar Team, she proposed a mission to land a boat on one of Titan’s seas). She has served as an outspoken advocate for the funding of science and technology and campaigned for greater protections for the environment. She has also implored younger people—women and people of color, specifically—to embrace careers in STEM, reminding students that possibilities in the sciences are limitless, and that their inventions can change the planet as we know it (as well as for all future generations). As a writer, she has published extensively; she is co-author of the book Planetology: Unlocking the Secrets of the Solar System and the upcoming publication The Next Earth: What Can Our World Teach Us About Other Planets?, both published by National Geographic.
Prior to her role with NASA, Stofan held a wide range of titles throughout her career: from 2000–2012, she worked as VP of Proxemy Research, and from 1992–2000 she held senior positions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including Chief Scientist of the New Millennium Program, Experiment Scientist for the Shuttle Imaging Radar-C, and Deputy Project Scientist for the Magellan mission to Venus.
Today, Stofan is an Honorary Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at University College London and is co-chair of the World Economic Space Council; she has also received honorary degrees from Washington and Jefferson College, Meredith College, and the College of William and Mary, as well as the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. She is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and the Explorers Club, and the former Chair of the College of William and Mary Foundation Board. Stofan is also an advisor to the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, Terra Alpha Investments, and the Space Angels Venture Fund. She holds a PhD and MSc from Brown University and a Bachelor of Science degree from the College of William and Mary.
In the STEM fields, we live under a myth of meritocracy. Research shows that instead of selecting the very best candidates for the job, we (still) preferentially select white men. But doing so means we’re only half as innovative, competent, or productive as we could be. Simply put: when women and people of color are under-represented in science, tech, engineering, and mathematics, we’re leaving talent on the table. And to tackle today’s most urgent challenges, our workforce needs to look a lot more like our actual population.
In this keynote, Ellen Stofan argues from personal experience and hard-won effort that we can solve this problem, but it’s going to take two major undertakings. First, we need to encourage girls and people of color to learn to code and study the sciences—and that means an overhaul of our culture and our education system. Second, we’ll need to transform our workplace cultures more generally: what they look like, how they inspire, and how people are held accountable. For Stofan, it’s about telling more stories—and more success stories—to allow girls and people of color to see what they can be (as the film Hidden Figures has shown, to blockbuster-levels of popularity). After all, it’s not just about personal potential—but the potential of what we can all achieve, at home and across the stars.
To Ellen Stofan, climate change is the most significant challenge we face. There is no time to set back the clock. There is no time for disbelief. We need to act on our impending planetary disaster—but to better understand how it all fits together, Stofan looks up into the night sky for a curious foreshadowing of our (potential) fate.
At one time, Venus used to have an ocean. But a runaway greenhouse effect ensured its hellish atmosphere of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid (and 900 degree temperatures—making it the hottest planet in the solar system). And throughout her career, Ellen Stofan has used this scenario to illustrate what happens—what will happen—to a planet should greenhouse gases build up. This is why studying our galaxy is so important: it holds key information to help us understand the past, present, and future of Earth. In this talk, Stofan argues that we must use what we’ve learned about other planets to help mitigate the effects of our warming (and melting) world. Volcanoes on Venus, giant hurricanes on Jupiter, ancient lakebeds on Mars: how can the environments of our solar system help us better understand our own complex planet? How can we combat misinformation and keep space science funded at the highest levels? And how can we read the warning signs from above (and very far away) to ensure ‘spaceship’ Earth stays green, clean, and habitable for generations to come?
NASA plans to send humans to Mars in the 2030s—a monumental challenge. But this will help us discover if life ever evolved on the red planet, and will also boost our economy and technological capacities (like Apollo did in the 1960s). In fact, getting to Mars may provide helpful solutions to problems here in the developing world—issues around agriculture, irrigation, water purity, and rescue technology.
So what does this kind of mission require of us—as scientists, as innovators, as tech advocates? What can such an undertaking teach us about ourselves, regardless of who we are and what we do? In this inspiring talk, Ellen Stofan asks audiences to dream big, and explains how NASA’s approach to solving challenges has direct applications to overcoming our own, Earth-based obstacles. Sending humans to Mars—like any great feat of imagination—requires breaking the problem into pieces and solving them one at a time. We won’t get there by standing still, being too risk averse, or relying on past achievements. We need a vision, a plan, and resources. We have to build in flexibility, as technologies will change in ways we cannot predict, new partnership opportunities may come about, and stakeholders need to stay aligned. Ultimately, getting to Mars is about more than exploring the night sky—it’s a way to unlock the curiosity in all of us.