Beyond the Bookshelf event highlights the journey to discovering your purpose

Published Feb. 22, 2023
Updated March 7, 2023

On February 8, the ASU Library hosted its third installment of the “Beyond the Bookshelf” event series. The event featured Foundation and Regents Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton in conversation with STEM Librarian Karalyn Ostler

Elkins-Tanton is the principal investigator of the NASA Psyche Mission and vice president of ASU's Interplanetary Initiative. Her most recent book “A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman,” was released last year.

“As a scientist, you're supposed to know from the time that you're seven, that you want to be a scientist, you're just gonna go be a scientist. And that is not what happened to me.” 

During the program, Elkins-Tanton talked about the desire to write a memoir to help connect with people who could see themselves on a path that’s not always clear.

“When I read memoirs, a lot of times, I feel like, it's just like a foregone conclusion, the person is growing up, and they've got this path, and they're gonna end up in this place, which gave them whatever reason to write a memoir, “shared Elkins-Tanton. “I just really wanted to share the truth of the difficult curvy paths, that I think, honestly, everybody goes through, even if they're not often told that way in books.”

In the memoir, Elkins-Tanton writes about her childhood, education and studying at MIT. After graduation, she pursued a business career until deciding to return to academia when she was 30. 

Throughout the conversation, Elkins-Tanton shared stories from her life and career from studying the Permian extinction, and traveling in Siberia to leading ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative Along the way, she continued to build strong teams and programs for enabling student success. 

“What we've been doing is figuring out new educational programs and new research programs that are designed for that interdisciplinary future [and] ways to just work across and among all the disciplines that get many units involved in our brand new undergraduate degree Technological Leadership.”

The new programs help teach people the skills they need to work in our information age. “So how do you ask the right question? How do you identify the unsolved problem? How do you go about finding the information?” explained Elkins-Tanton. “And then how do you work in teams to make it happen because that's really what's going to happen after you graduate and things that you don't often get to practice in your undergrad.”

Helping people overcome barriers 

Elkins-Tanton shared stories and experiences about ways to be an effective leader and make space for people at the table.

“The best way that I could be a leader would be to be my most genuine self, and the most authenticity I could bring to it…my heartfelt values, my best efforts like that was going to make me a better leader than if I was trying to pretend to be something that I wasn't,” said Elkins-Tanton. 

“What I really mean this to be about is making a space for anyone who needs a bit of help to find their space for whatever reason, regardless of what they look like on the outside, it's really what help they need on the inside that matters.”

Preparing for the NASA Psyche Mission launch

As the principal investigator for the NASA Psyche Mission, Elkins-Tanton is leading the team that will explore one of the tiny remnants formed at the very beginning of our solar system.

After a delay last year, the Psyche Mission is scheduled to launch in October 2023. Elkins-Tanton talked about that setback and figuring out how to move the team forward. “I will just say that of all my life experiences on the professional side, this was definitely the most painful and most stressful and most difficult year of my life. But also, as you might well imagine the biggest learning experience.”

Questions to ponder while walking and writing

One mechanism Elkins-Tanton uses to decompress is walking with a question in mind. “I kind of will prime myself with a question, then I'll go walking off, and then suddenly, something will come to me out of my subconscious.” 

In addition to walking, writing is another outlet that brings forth ideas and creativity. “And the other thing I love to do, frankly, is write, I find writing to be really decompressing and lovely.”

Is another book on the horizon? “This will probably never see the light of day, but I'm writing a novel now. Because it's so much fun,” said Elkins-Tanton.

“Beyond the Bookshelf” is a series presented by the ASU Library featuring ASU authors in conversation with librarians. The series highlights voices from around the university, sharing their work at ASU and beyond. “A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman” can be found in the ASU Authors and STEM Diversity Collections at the ASU Library.

The “Psyche Inspired” exhibit celebrating women in STEM is on display at Fletcher Library on the West campus until May 13, 2023.