As the former 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.
Stofan is the former chief scientist of NASA (2013–2016), where she served as principal adviser 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 to 2012, she worked as vice-president of Proxemy Research, and from 1992 to 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 adviser 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.