Ellen Stofan was basically bred for NASA. Growing up, her father worked for the space exploration giant as a rocket engineer while her mother taught science courses. She grew up accustomed to hearing aeronautics-speak and scientific discussion at the dining room table. She even attended her first rocket launch when she was just 4-years-old.
Stofan eventually became NASA’s Chief Scientist, meaning she was working on everything from the next spacecrafts in development to study the universe, to the question of how they’ll actually get people to Mars. Stofan says it was unsurprisingly a “really fun” job. But, she also recognizes how rare her childhood experience was and how her life path might have turned out very differently without the support of her parents in her chosen field.
“If you look in science, technology, engineering, or math, women make up 30 percent or less of the workforce,” Stofan says in the video above. “I want every girl in this country to feel like she can grow up to be an astronaut, a pilot, or maybe someday the director of the National Air and Space Museum.”
Now, as the first female director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., she wants to make sure the next generation of future explorers, especially women and minorities, are encouraged to enter STEM fields just like she was as a kid. “How do we create an environment all along that pipeline that not just welcomes women but actually actively encourages them, because we know that’s the key to success?” she asks.
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To hear more about her plans for the museum and future explorers, watch the full video above and read excerpts below.
Starting out: “Women were always the extreme minority,” Stofan says when discussing her early career and the challenges of being a woman in her field. She also recalls a scenario where a male co-worker would curse during meetings, then immediately turn to Stofan, often the only woman in the room, and apologize. “He was reminding everyone in the room that I was different,” Stofan says. “[That’s] when you say, ‘If I’m different, is this where I belong?’ So, I would feel like I had to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously.”
Full circle: Stofan is a big fan of her museum. “Every day I walk into the museum and it still just fills me with awe because all of our artifacts tell the story of someone who went the fastest, someone who went the furthest, someone who went the highest,” she says of the inspiring objects that surround her every day. The wide-eyed feeling might stem from her first-ever visit to the museum, when she began there as an intern.
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After her freshman year in college, when she decided planetary geology was her calling, she interned at the Center for Earth and Planetary studies, which is at the Air and Space Museum.
“To me it was the most awesome place in the world,” she says. “I really never thought I would come back as director and partially that was because that wasn’t something that I thought was a career path for women at the time.” Fast-forward to today, when Stofan is making history.
Women in STEM: To honor women in STEM fields whom Stofan looks up to, she’s created a commemorative wall in her office at the museum that showcases amazing women who achieved great feats in aviation and space. These photos include everyone from Amelia Earhart to another Badass Woman and NASA veteran, Mae Jemison.
Goals for the next gen: “One of the important things for me is let’s make sure we inspire them with stories of people who look like them,” Stofan says. “I want to make sure you see yourself, someone who looks like you that has achieved amazing things in the past here in the museum.” She’s doing so by focusing on middle school-aged kids in her programming and trying to show them how cool their careers can be.
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