Dr. Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, was as brilliant as the solar system she studies and as fascinating as the human mission to Mars she is helping the agency plan when she visited Foxcroft School Friday morning. Dr. Stofan shared intriguing insights into space exploration and the possibility of life on other planets, as well as thoughts on everything from black holes and climate change to the need for more women in science and the validity of sci-fi literature.
The planetary geologist and enthusiastic proponent of sending a manned mission to Mars mesmerized students and faculty alike during her hour-long presentation in Currier Library as she showed out-of-this-world (literally) photos and talked about NASA’s broad areas of inquiry and impact.
“I like to say that our work is about looking outward, inward, and homeward,” said Stofan, noting that the universe, the human body, and Earth are at the heart of NASA’s work. There are three key questions, she added, that connect all of NASA’s numerous and varied activities:
- Are we alone?
- How did we get here?
- How does our universe work?
Lofty topics to address in a lifetime, let alone one hour – but the Rectortown, VA resident did an admirable job of it. She is, after all, one of CNN’s Most Extraordinary People of 2014. She’s also a mother of three and one of those rare individuals who can talk technology and plain English at the same time, making even esoteric scientific concepts accessible to a room full of teenage girls.
“I’ve attended scores of presentations to many different audiences on the topics Dr. Stofan spoke about,” said Dr. Maria Eagen, Chair of Foxcroft’s Science Department and a former astrophysical engineer, “and hers was the best I’ve ever heard.”
The magic continued for several hours after the all-school presentation as Stofan met with students from a half-dozen courses over three class periods. Among other things, she discussed problem-solving and scientific method with AP Physics and Neurology students and the practical and theoretical applications of mathematics with Geometry, Algebra II, and Calculus students -- all in the context of space exploration, planetary geology (her specialty), and the thrill of scientific discovery.
“Everything that woman said was interesting,” enthused Tori W. '15, who spent two class periods listening and learning from Stofan. “She was amazing!”
A planetary geologist with degrees from the College of William and Mary and Brown University, Stofan’s accomplishments and her rise to the top of a field dominated by men is amazing. Stofan is as passionate about opening students’ eyes to the possibilities and joys of working in science, engineering, and technology as she is about the rocks, space shuttles, and trips to Mars she has focused her career on.
“You don’t have to be good at mathematics to be a scientist,” she said, admitting that she struggled with the subject itself. “You may have to work a little harder because you need to use it as a tool but you don’t have to love it. Creativity is an important part of what we do. That’s why I refer to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) instead of STEM -- the arts are key.”
Diversity is another key to scientific progress, she said, bemoaning the ‘leaky science and technology pipeline.’ “From middle school through grad school and mid-level jobs, research shows young women dropping out of the pipeline at every step,” said Stofan. “You may ask why it matters,” she said. “But when we have big challenges in front of us -- like what are we going to do about climate change or how are we going to get a spacecraft to land on the surface of Mars -- having different viewpoints and ideas is crucial. How can we solve these problems when we’re only inviting 50 percent of the population to the table?”
Stofan was invited to Foxcroft by Head of School Cathy McGehee after they met at an event in Richmond. Stofan strives to talk in schools at least once a month and agreed to make the Middleburg girls' school her first stop in 2015. It was a stop few of those who heard her will soon forget.
Stofan has been fascinated by outer space she since saw her first rocket launch at age 4. From 1989 to 2000, she worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, holding several top positions in the agency’s New Millennium Program, Magellan Mission to Venus, and SIR-C development.
After leaving NASA in 2000, Stofan worked at Proxemy Research, where she served as principal investigator for the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), a proposal to send a floating probe to investigate the hydrocarbon seas of Saturn’s largest moon. She returned to NASA as Chief Scientist in August 2013.