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Lindy Elkins-Tanton is the principal investigator of NASA's Psyche mission, vice president of Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University, and co-founder of Beagle Learning, a tech company training and measuring collaborative problem-solving and critical thinking.
After almost a decade of working in the business world, Lindy returned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for her Ph.D. in geology and received two Zonta International Amelia Earhart (AE) Fellowships to fund her research.
A prolific figure in the planetary science community, Lindy is the head of NASA's Psyche mission, a journey to a unique metal-rich asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. She is only the second woman to lead a NASA mission to a major solar system body.
In recognition of Lindy's scientific contributions, Asteroid 8252 Elkins-Tanton was named after her. Lindy's memoir, A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman, was published earlier this year. The book details her life as a scientist and exploration of Earth and space.
In September, Lindy was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chair of the Zonta Spirit Working Group.
Here are some of the top takeaways from their conversation:
Atypical journey to science career
"I don't have a typical kind of prominent story the way people deep into a field like this sometimes have, and I think it's nice to share that actually, so that if there are people out there who don't yet know exactly what they want to do by the time that they're 12, they don't feel like they're … behind the game."
"I was told a few times to minimize all that business stuff … and don't talk about it because it shows that you're not really serious about science and you haven't gone straight through it. I'm hoping those kinds of attitudes are lessening."
"I had my son during that time before I went back from my doctorate, but when I started my doctorate at 31, he was 5, I was newly divorced and he started kindergarten the same week I started graduate school. Of course, that made graduate school more challenging in some ways, but it made it much easier because I was very clear about why I was there. I wasn't going through the standard existential crises that graduate students go through, wondering who they are and why they're there and how they're being valued."
What her first career taught her
"I went out to investigate the business world, which I'm so glad that I did, because I learned so much. I learned about working in teams and having common goals and writing budgets and organizing people."
"Fifteen to 20 years ago and earlier, these things that we so rightly call transferable skills were really undervalued, and, in fact devalued, as if they were somehow soft and easy. But actually, learning how to work in teams and understanding how to create a larger goal and make the great move forward in a better, more effective way is very hard. There's nothing easy about it. And so any of those skills, I think, come in handy."
How the AE Fellowship contributed to her success
"Thank you so much to Zonta because those were difficult years in grad school trying to make ends meet. In terms of my budget, and in terms of believing that I was going to get somewhere with what I was doing, that go-to faith from those fellowships really helped me, and I have those pins up very proudly to this day, of course."
Why confidence should be irrelevant
"When I finished my master's, I was being urged to go ahead and do my doctorate. … But I didn't feel confident enough … and I wish I hadn't been that way, not because I regret those 10 years, but just because it's so needless to be hindered by one's feeling of confidence or lack of confidence. I try now to move forward to what I'm interested in, whether I'm confident or not is irrelevant."
How she builds her leadership skills
"Many different ways, because I have still so much to learn. I tried very hard to notice where I failed, and take lessons learned from that. … One lesson that I learned very painfully was that when a part of your team is quiet, that's not a good sign. Silence is not a sign of health. … I've got a group of friends and all of us are leading one thing or another, and we compare that quite often and ask each other what helps them. … Something I really recommend to everyone is to read the Harvard Business Review. The articles are so useful and so digestible and based on statistics. There are many, many ways to bring new ideas into your world, and those are the ones that I use."
Greatest powers or gifts as a leader
"Humility—to remain sure that I don't know all the answers, and that it's better to listen to others, and that it's not about myself trying to make myself bigger. … The other thing I would think is … a determination to reject circumstances that are unacceptable. Immediately start working on finding the path forward, immediately start working on discovering the way that we can use our energy to positively move past this barrier to find the solution. I think that is a good thing for a leader, which I suppose translates into a sense of optimism, and that's a really important part of life."
"We all get this advice to pick yourself up. Success is how many times you stand up again and keep walking forward, you know, and there's so much truth in that. But that is so oversimplified from the actual experience. And what is the balance that one takes between apologizing and taking the blame, but standing up and saying, 'I'm still in charge. We can do this.' … If someone takes on too much of the blame, then they sort of have to step aside carrying that blame with them. But if you take, maybe the right amount of blame and really assess this, how we felt, what happened and now we need to look forward and move forward. That's how I think people persist."
Being a role model
"I'm a little bit uncomfortable with that, partly because I don't feel like I have any superpowers. But I hope that if my presence makes others feel they might be more welcome, I would love that. When I get asked for advice, sometimes I do actually have advice but mostly I have my own life story. And I can say, 'Here's when something like that happened to me. This is what I tried.' It's more offering data than it is a hovering direction, because I have a lot of faith that each of us really does know the right thing if we're given the moment to decide it, and given the support through some mentoring or equivalent of that."
"The more women like … myself and others in our disciplines that the young girls see, and women see that they can be what they want to be if they see other women doing it, they see it as possible. I think, perhaps, whether we like it or not, we find ourselves as a role model."
What she's most proud of
"Producing for myself a self-determined path and the right life partner, so that we could each achieve what we most wanted which is often not possible in a relationship, sadly—especially a more traditional one. … [My son] has grown up beautifully, and somehow it all worked. And so the balance between trying to make sure each of the people in this narrative that I'm mentioning found their right path in life, even through difficult things like divorce. I'm very grateful and maybe also proud of that."
"I think my best advice is to practice all the time having an opinion. It's amazing how many people in this world are to the point where they have no practice in having anything to say. … I think another very important thing which has helped me a lot … trying to surround yourself with people who do believe in and who care about what you think and listen to you when you speak. Because if you're surrounded by people who don't listen to you when you speak, or believe that you're worth listening to, it's very hard to gain that confidence. It's not to say that that's an easy thing to do. But if you do have people in your life who are really not supporting your dreams, see if you can take a step away."
To keep up with Lindy, visit her website and follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter. For news on the Psyche mission, click here.
Watch Lindy's Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories session:
30 SEPTEMBER 2022