Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Why Teamwork Helps Scientists Thrive

This is a transcript of the video interview titled Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Why Teamwork Helps Scientists Thrive.

Chris Gorski  00:05

Hi, and welcome to Inside Science Conversations. I'm your host Chris Gorski. I'm the senior editor at, a website produced by the American Institute of Physics. Today we're talking to Lindy Elkins-Tanton. She's a planetary geologist, a professor at Arizona State University, and the principal investigator of NASA Psyche mission, which is scheduled to launch in summer 2022. Lindy, thanks for joining us.


Thank you so much for inviting me. This is a pleasure, Chris.

Chris Gorski  00:35

So I tried to start the show with a question. When you were 10 or 12 years old? What did you think you were going to do? As a career as an adventurer? What did you have in mind?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 00:47

Yeah, was the classic question. And I guess I get asked all the time, like, when did you know that you wanted to study planets or work with NASA or something. And when I was 10, or 12, I want to be veterinarian, and I spent all my time with horses and dogs. And it wasn't until years later, when I realized that all my horses and dogs hated the veterinarian, that I no longer wanted to be a veterinarian.

Chris Gorski  01:11

So what brought you to planets? They I guess they don't really respond in the same way.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 01:16

Yeah, you can feel warmly toward them. And it's all good. I was always interested just in all kinds of natural science, but also with art and music and literature, the ways that humans contend with what's around us to try to understand it and interpret it. And I ended up going into geology, mostly working on terrestrial geology for a while. And then I became fascinated during my PhD with the concept of the magma ocean, which it seems to be that probably several times during their formation, the formation of the rocky terrestrial planets, they had giant accretionary impacts with other objects as they were growing, that had so much energy that they actually melted the planet entirely. And that is a magma ocean. So the idea that you would have the Earth or Venus or Mercury or Mars out there in space, literally a liquid ball of magma that is about to solidify, cool and solidify into a planet. That felt so poetic and primal to me, and also is a great starting point for models. And so that's where I really got into planetary science.

Chris Gorski  02:25

So how did you? I mean that's something that, you know, I majored in geology in school, I don't think we really got into that in undergrad curriculum or, you know, maybe just a touch right. So how do you how did you kind of move through school to get there?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 02:41

Yeah, I did. My undergrad, I did study a little bit of planets, but mostly just geology. And I did a master's in geochemistry, studying feldspars. And then I went to work in business. And I worked in business for eight years, I left academia, I learned so much. And then I taught math for two years. And then I went back for my PhD when I was 31. And it was during my PhD when I was doing high temperature and pressure experiments in the lab with my primary advisor, Professor Tim Grove. And we started working on some lunar analogs to understand the volcanoes that happened on the moon, three and a half billion years ago. So when you look up at the moon, and you see those great big craters filled with dark, dark rock, the black craters, that's of course, basalt, it's a volcanic rock, it's the most basalt you can see anywhere in the solar system. It's a huge, huge volume of basalt, and we wanted to understand how it formed inside the moon. And that's the pathway that I took to learning about magma oceans, and eventually doing the modeling that then brought me to think about the early stages of planetary formation with the little planetesimals, the little planets that accreted together to make the big planets. And finally, that's what led to the Psyche mission because we think Psyche, the asteroid Psyche out in the asteroid belt, is a piece of one of those planetesimals, the very first little bodies in our solar system.

Chris Gorski  04:09

The asteroid belt is millions of miles away, right? How do you know? Or how do you, why do you suspect that it's part of an ancient planetesimal

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 04:18

But we do think actually, that all the asteroids are parts of ancient planetesimals, and most of them are just tiny collisional fragments that have been broken apart, but a few of them the bigger ones might be most of, or even all of, a planetesimal like Ceres and Vesta. And we think Psyche is probably a big part of a planetesimal. So dynamically, when you think about how the planets formed and how they moved, the asteroid belt is just perched there protected by the gravity of Jupiter from moving away or being interfered with by other planets or ever having a created into a planet. So it's just the leftovers that is there because it's protected by Jupiter, so we get to look at the asteroid belt and effectively look back in time. So we look at the reflected light spectra off of the asteroids, we look at how radar bounces off them, all the things we've learned from missions already. And that tells us a lot about what they're made of.

Chris Gorski  05:16

And so you're the principal investigator of this mission. What does that mean? What do you have to do?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 05:24

So Principal Investigator means that I'm the person who's been leading this effort. We started in 2011, with our idea for the Psyche mission. And we started writing our proposal and putting together a team and teaming up with Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And by the time 2014 came along, we've been working on for three years, it was time to submit our first proposal, a team was about 50 people proposal was about 250 pages. And 28 proposals competed, and five were selected to go on to step two. And we were selected, which was when I got that phone call, I still can't believe it. Because we did not expect to be selected. We thought we were the underdog for a million reasons. And so we and our team went on to step two, that's almost 1000 page report, a full year, the first time we get funded, get some money to do it. And our team grew to about 150. And then in 2017, just oh my gosh, it's five years and six days since the day that NASA called to say that we are selected for flight. And so, as a principal investigator, my job was to try to help put that team together, create those coalition's do the strategy, help to write the proposal, manage the teams relations with NASA headquarters, and going forward to all those jobs continue. So so far, it's administration strategy, budgeting, scheduling, all of that stuff that we're not taught how to do as scientists, and eventually it becomes about science again.

Chris Gorski  06:57

I mean, if it's scheduled to launch this summer, I mean, are you kind of holding your breath and working frantically for the next six months? Is that

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 07:06

Yes, yeah. So this is, oh my gosh, it's hard to even express how intense it is right now. If you, you know, so at the end of April, beginning of May, we're meant to ship the spacecraft from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, to Florida, so it can get integrated with its rocket, which is a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, and get ready for our launch period, which opens on August 1. So if everything goes beautifully, we're going to launch on August 1. But of course, first of all, we're building a spacecraft. And the team has been as large as 800 people, it's a big endeavor. And dozens of subcontractors, the spacecraft itself is when its solar arrays are unfolded, it's going to be the size of a single tennis court. It's a big undertaking, doing it under any circumstances is difficult. Doing it under COVID is very difficult, because you cannot build a spacecraft remotely through zoom, sadly. So fortunately, we have a fantastic team. And people have really largely been able to keep their morale up and keep driving forward and staying safe. And I think that we're going to make it. But we have a million challenges like spacecraft always do at this stage. And so people told me that doing a space mission is like, it's like a marathon that ends in a sprint. Only what I didn't understand is that the sprint is 12 months long. So there's just a huge amount of trying to make sure that we all get rest and trying to celebrate our successes and help everyone on the team as much as possible. And that's where we are right now.

Chris Gorski  08:46

Wow. That sounds like a lot.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 08:50

It is a lot. It's a lot. It's so much fun. The spacecraft is going into the thermal vacuum chamber at Jet Propulsion Laboratory this week, which means that we've integrated almost all the subsystems onto the spacecraft. And it's going into a chamber large enough to hold this whole spacecraft, that and then to be evacuated to the vacuum of space and cooled down to the temperature of space to make sure the spacecraft works under those circumstances. So it's the it's the second step in our environments testing to make sure that our spacecraft is really going to work once it launches. That's where we are.

Chris Gorski  09:26

Wow. Well, good luck. You know, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because of the essay you wrote in issues in science and technology that was published, I think, last summer, and you talked you know, you're talking about 800 people working together toward some common goal that probably doesn't even count the engineers who worked on the on the rocket that's going to launch it and all the other a bunch of other people involved along the way, right? And what that really highlights is that the message of your essay that there are a lot of people involved and there's a probably some different ways that we can manage science and the way we think about science, what brought you to think of a sort of hero model of science, and some of the issues that it brings up.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 10:15

It's a huge passion of mine. And so the idea of this essay is that most of academic science, most of academia as a whole, operates under what we're calling the hero model, where the single senior academician owns this pyramid of resources, and ideas, and people. So in the traditional, say, German academic system, the hero model academic would be in charge of a building that includes a museum and a library and laboratories, and a whole bunch of research, researchers and faculty and students all report entirely to this person. And this person is the intellectual owner of their topic at that university. That's the classic model, the classic hero model. And that is, you know, in modifications, how research academia generally works in the United States as well, in some way or another. And the point that I'm trying to make in this essay, is that there are a lot of problems with that model. And that the model has brought us a long way in the millennium that it's been under use. And I’m not advocating that we throw it out altogether, or that the people who are living in that model are bad people like none of that. But I think we need to open the doors to some other ways to make progress. And the things that's really got me thinking about this, which I've been thinking about for a couple of decades. The first one is culture. A lot of us have noticed in academia, I think that the culture is not always fabulous. And that it can be right it can be the best ever, it can be filled with creative ideas and enthusiasm and coming to work could be such a pleasure. Or it can be a place where there's a lot of harassment and bullying and exclusion, and where people shout each other down. And where junior people, or unexpected voices are not listened to, you know, where the heroes own the concepts, and we'll accept no contradictions. And that is not a positive model for people trying to join the field for creating any kind of diversity or inclusion, because people who come in who are not in the standard model of the people in academia are not going feel welcomed by this or supported. It's very bad for diversity of ideas. It's bad for rapid progress. And so culture is the first thing that I started thinking about, how do you make a team where people get listened to and where new ideas are welcomed, and where the person as they gain power in their seniority, use the power to help other people rather than to suppress them. So that was the first thing culture, you know, and then I would just add, incremental progress. The hero model generally means that people on their pyramids, their pyramids are bumping up against their competitors pyramids, and scientific progress tends to be made in little increments, slivers of real estate around those mountains of knowledge. And you're not really encouraged to step into fields where you're not already the acknowledged expert, you can get completely attacked and creamed in your proposal reviews or your paper reviews or in, you know, conference conversations. And so kind of sticking to what you know best is rewarded vastly. And so that does not create giant leaps in innovation. And I would argue that, in our world today, we need some giant leaps in innovation. We need people who are really asking the big critical questions, and trying to solve the problems of our day in the most efficient way possible, not necessarily the way that will make them personally most famous. So that's what this essay is about.

Chris Gorski  13:55

When you when you have special specialties. A lot of the… this what you mean by the pyramid where somebody learns more and more about less and less until they know basically everything about nothing? It reduces down almost that much.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 14:09

Yeah, that's, that's, um, that does happen. Right? That's the giant joke is that in the end, you know everything about nothing. Really, what I mean by the pyramid is the ownership of resources and concepts. It's the ownership of ideas. And so, you know, one way that I can describe myself academically is as an igneous petrologist. So I study the rocks that are created by volcanoes. And so usually University will only have one igneous petrologist or maybe two that are in really quite different ends of the field. And so I get to own my field I'm that pyramid of concepts is mine. And if anybody wants to work on it, really they should come talk to me and if anybody is saying, you know, saying stuff about a igneous petrology. I get to weigh in with my expert voice and rule the day. And I get to run my pyramid of people and resources the way I want, with relatively little interference from the university.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 15:00

Sometimes that's great, you can be the most amazing mentor ever. And you can launch your students into fabulous careers, and it can feel like a home almost, or it can be terrible. I can bully people and shut them down. And I can bully them right out of the field if I don't like them, or they're threatening me. And as I become more famous, and my pyramid is larger, I get a much higher rate of approval of my grant proposals, my papers go through review more easily, I get invited to do press interviews, I get to be an advisor, you know, these are things that come with kind of fame. But the problem is, a lot of it is driven by that sense of ownership and charisma, and not as much as driven by excellence, as should be. And so my question to all of us is, how can we be driven better by the outcomes, the importance of the work that you're doing? The ways that you're actually helping the community and building new people into STEM? Unless by just, I know how to say things in a tone of voice that other people just say, yes, you're the expert, like, that is not actually a measure of excellence. But it's a way that we train ourselves.

Chris Gorski  16:10

Right? Right. So I mean, you know, we see this with the Nobel Prizes were a couple of people are recognized for something that thousands of people have contributed to. I guess that's one of the largest, most glaring examples, you know, this is a very ingrained pattern of thinking of, here's how we manage things. And here's who the experts are, and here's how we get more knowledge. So what's, uh, what's the prospect for making this work, you know, in fields from, you know, agricultural science to NASA missions to, you know, political science?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 16:54

What can we do? What can we do? Yeah, you know, I think part of it is just thinking a little more critically about our culture, instead of just blindly rewarding people who have that kind of stature and that way of delivering information. But then for the past five years, we've been working on an alternative model here at the interplanetary initiative at ASU. And we call our model the big questions model. And it's a fairly risky thing to do in the beginning. And I just thought nobody was going to really go along with this concept. But here's an experiment. Why don't y'all come and meet with me, just for a few hours on this one day, we're going serve snacks, and we'll have coffee, and we're going to do this thing. And 50 people showed up. Everybody from deans and faculty, I invited everybody, staff, students, members of the community, so people from private sector, and I asked them….what are the questions that we need most urgently to answer, in order to have a positive human space future? We started writing down questions, what are the most important questions? So I was looking for really aspirational questions like, imagine the question is like your javelin, and you're throwing it way out over the hill, and you're going try to run and figure it out? Not the simple next step, not the little increment, but something that might take a career, or a lifetime, or several to actually answer. We collected these questions. And then we voted on which are the most important. And then one of the nice things that happened even in that very first time was that people who weren't really “experts,” like people were not the hero model faculty asked some of the most highly voted questions, because it actually, it's an outside perspective can be fantastic. We took the 10 most highly voted questions. And then I just invited people go in the next room, sit at a table with the question you're most interested in, just volunteer into teams. And at the end of an hour, I'm going to ask somebody from each team to come up and give a little out brief. Here are the milestones we think we could reach in one year. That would be in service of answering this question, just the first steps. Here are the other disciplines, we needed the table in order to start to answer those questions. And here's a little idea of the resources we might need. And so the discipline question I think, is really important, because many big important questions need lots of disciplines. But there's a big hierarchy of disciplines, how people value them. And I've seen this for example, in Capstone teams, the engineering student thinks that the student who does graphical design or marketing is a lesser expert than themselves. And then it turns out, they can't do graphical design or marketing. And then they realize that person is super valuable and that everybody's there for a purpose. And they actually can't reach the end goal without them. And that's a really lovely epiphany that I would like for everybody to have. So that's what we do with these little teams. And so then what happens is, we then pick a leader. So the goal is we're not coming in with one person and their idea. This is not the project designed around a person. This is a project designed around a question. So then we pick a leader do some other things, give them professional project management, little bit of seed funds, not much. And that was it. First year, we sent, I don't know how many teams some number of teams off to start their work. And it was in May. And I thought, well, that's it, you know, for them, I'm never going to hear from them again, the fifth one will show up again in September. Turn out everybody loved it, they were into this idea of working on a team where everyone was going towards something they all believed in. With our first peer reviewed papers by September, none of the teams disbanded. So we've now done this with 25 different research projects. And the best metric, I think of success is that we're running above a seven times return on investment. So we give a little bit of money and seed money. And then we encourage them to go get outside contracts outside grants. And they've gotten more than seven times as much money back in and outside contracts and grants that we gave them and seed money. So there's a model at the beginning of a model and experiment that we've been running now for five years, and how to put together teams around important questions instead of chains around charismatic leaders, I would like to suggest that both of these models can exist in many different hybrids and invented new models, not just the hero model.

Chris Gorski  21:15

Wow, that would be really something it's a dizzying to think about trying to apply that to a lot of the ways that science funding are distributed, such as the National Science Foundation, or National Institutes of Health, etc. And does that come out of your experiences with NASA,  or a mix of all your experiences throughout your career?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 21:38

Yeah, a bunch of a mix of experiences, I really have been struck, working on space missions, how much the different disciplines are valued, and where you get away a bit from that hierarchy, even the building the spacecraft, which is really the first thing that you think about for years and years is really an engineering practice. The fact is that project management is king. Like, that's how everything gets done. And the budgeters and the schedulers and the people who do social media, and everyone is so valued and needed. And so that was a really lovely model for that. And then, for a few years after I'd finished my master's, and before I came back to Science for a PhD, I worked as a management consultant. And I had an epiphany during which everyone else is going to think as total ignorance and naivete, but I'm going to share it with you because to me, it was life changing. We were working with Boeing helicopter, actually the company we were working with, and we were helping them figure out how to better manage their parts, they were taking in helicopters, just assembling them, reassembling them. And I was the junior member of the team. And we are tracking what happened to all the parts in the paperwork and whether or not the inventory was being kept accurately and how we could help them do it better. And we gathered all this data. And then the senior members of the team said, we're going to suggest to Boeing that they do the following things and they reorganize their teams the following ways. Like they just made it up. And they're like, this would be better, we'll do this and this and this. And then I discovered that all you had to do was convince the other people that this was really how the world worked. And then it was true. It did work that way. Now, that's not science, right? In science, you don't get to make it up in your head and then convince other people it's true. Like there has to be some fundamental physical truth to your science. But it turns out when you're working with humans, it's what we all agree upon reality is, that was the amazing kind of answer that I got out of that little lesson. And so that's been very inspiring to me and how to put together teams and think about how you can do your work. And if we all agree that this is reality, this is the world we live in, then it is.

Chris Gorski  23:42

one of the other things related to this, I don't want to ask about what was you know, your essay begins with a anecdote about what I would say is about inbuilt assumptions about how the world works, that people don't even realize are assumptions. And I wonder if you could explain a little bit about that.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 23:59

Yeah, it was, um, I don't know when this was maybe five, four or five years ago, and I was the head of the School of Earth and space exploration, the director at the time at Arizona State University. A job that I stepped down from when Psyche was awarded because it's too big a job to try to do it. But at the time, when I was director of the school, we had our visiting committee, and I was talking with them and feeling proud about the culture of the school and when I came in to the school at ASU had already had a really good, collaborative collegial culture, which makes it possible to have within one school astrophysicists, geologists, planetary scientists, engineers who make instruments for these things. Instead of retreating to their villages and competing with each other. They really worked on big projects that spanned these disciplines. And it was talking about what a great culture this was, and how nice it was that people really listen to each other and support the junior faculty came to consensus and one of the visiting committee members said, but you know, to really get to the truth of something, you got to have some heat, like expect people to pound on the table and stand up and scream at each other until the truth is found. And I thought to myself, I'm really not aware that standing up and pounding on the table screaming at each other leads to truth, like, how does that lead to truth? And so I was saying, I was saying, you know, what about junior people, or people who don't feel totally part of the club yet, like, they're going be silenced by this, you'll never hear their version of the truth. And I'm thinking in my head about things like a spacecraft, where it's the junior person who's literally soldering the pieces together. And if you don't listen to them when they say there's a problem, you will have a failure in space. And so you never want to silence, you know, people who don't seem like they're the most senior people. And his response was, unless people are really emotionally invested, you're not going to get to the real answer, because no one's caring enough, and you need people to yell and scream when there's a disagreement. And so I disagreed with that intensely. And I still do, I do not think that yelling and screaming is the way to truth. But there's a big part of the world that thinks that it is that you have to stand up and really argue other people to standstill. I'm sure you've seen it happen, right? We've all seen it happen.

Chris Gorski  26:19

Oh, sure. Well, in all kinds of settings, right, not just the office. With the sprint, the second six months of the 12 months sprint of Psyche, are you keeping yourself well? Are you keeping focused on all of those things, as well as the actual NASA meat of the thing?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 26:38

Yeah, that's really the central question of my existence right now that you just asked me. Because I just realized, I mean, I love the work that I do. I love working in university organization, as well as in the actual science research and the NASA mission. Like I love all this stuff. And I, and I've worked very hard, of my own choice. You know, graduate students say, I never want to do this if I have to work that hard. But if I'm working this hard, by my own choice, I don't have to do all these things. There's no part of my job that requires I do all the things that I'm doing, I do it out of joy. And yet, about a month ago, I realized I really had hit some level of burnout. And I didn't even really know what that meant. But suddenly, I discovered there were things I just didn't want to say yes to. And I would get requested on email. And I would feel angry instead of curious than I thought. So your question is a really central one. And, and so really, I'm focusing on Psyche now. And I'm doing relatively less of the day-to-day interplanetary initiative and running the questions and things. But we have a fantastic team here, led by my deputy director, who's fantastic, and we have great faculty associate directors. And so luckily, I don't have to do as much of that, because I need to stop working on every weekend, I need to get that extra rounds. I've been very good about lots of walking and jogging, and all those other things that kind of help you clear your head. But it is actually in the end, not possible to do all the things at once. And so now I'm really going to be focusing more on Psyche. And it's the way this team runs is so fascinating to me. And I'm learning more every day, because of course, I don't know all the things. And like, I probably have 25 standing meetings every week. And then when little emergencies come up, of course, there's more. And if we're having trouble with one of the hardware builds, you go to weekly meetings on it, and then you go to daily meetings on it. And so pretty soon, you have five meetings a week on one subsystem, so but we're making it which is great. The team's amazing.

Chris Gorski  28:40

Wow, well, I don't want to be too reductive. But it sounds like teamwork is the way forward for your local level and science in general.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 28:48

It's the only way you know, I mean, not only obviously, do I not know all the things about how to build a spacecraft, to say the least. But I mean, so many of the problems that we're trying to approach in today's world cannot be understood completely by any single person. You know, we have outgrown the age where like, you're not Lord Kelvin, you can't discover new chemistry in your kitchen, probably by yourself. You know, we've gotten to this point where this amazing point actually in human evolution where the things we're trying to build or solve cannot be understood by a single person, they have to be done in teams. And so I mean, if I could do it all myself, wouldn't that be fun, but also impossible. So thank goodness, so many people are interested in working on it.

Chris Gorski  29:35

Well, thanks for the conversation today. I really enjoyed having you on.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton 29:39

I really appreciate it. Thanks so much for your great questions and the chance to talk about these projects.

Chris Gorski  29:43

This has been inside science Conversations. I'm Chris Gorski please like and subscribe and check out our next episode.