How to Lead a NASA Mission by Eating Mosquitoes in Siberia

in great shape , Lindy Elkins-Tanton, second from left, and colleagues in Siberia.

Scott Simper / ASU

Lindy Elkins-Tanton is a Siberian-river-wielding, arc-welding, code-writing, patent-holding, company-founding, asteroid-finding, igneous petrologist professor. At various times, she has been a farmer, competition herding trainer, children’s book author, and management consultant for Boeing Helicopters. She is currently a professor at Arizona State University, helps run a learning company, and she is the principal investigator for NASA’s “Psyche” mission to a metallic asteroid.

Her self-described “curvy” career path has led her research into planet formation, magma oceans, mass extinctions and mantle melting. The results she generates are groundbreaking and have earned her a slew of coveted awards. There is even an asteroid – asteroid 8252 Elkins-Tanton – named after him.

Given all this, perhaps the biggest revelation in his new autobiography, a portrait of the scientist as a young woman, It’s that this stellar high achiever was plagued by the same doubts and lack of confidence that plague the rest of us. She kept swinging between forestry and geology when she was applying for college, as a freshman she was interrupted by organic chemistry, and was told she couldn’t study hard enough either. or she was not good enough. Sometimes she felt that she was not his, and sometimes she was told so. But Elkins-Tanton overcame those obstacles—and others far deeper.

To cover all that ground, Elkins-Tanton weaves several different threads into one book.

with lava from Russia

One thread is a fascinating account of his adventures as a geologist, particularly his expeditions into the remote jungles of Siberia. There, he found himself navigating the cold waters in a pontoon boat with duct tape, going by helicopter over the tundra, sharing an aircraft cargo bay with thawing, smelly caribou carcasses, vodka around the campfire in the snow. sipped, and ate in the clouds of mosquitoes. So thick that insects got into his food as it was going from his bowl to his mouth. She recounts the even less glamorous aspects of those trips: the sometimes tough team dynamics, the fruitless search for zircon crystals, shacking up Russian permits, and a spooky escape from an alcohol-addicted local.

Over several years, these expeditions netted 850 pounds of samples, which led to numerous papers from a multi-institution, multi-nation group of researchers. These conclusively link the Siberian flood basalts to the end-Permian mass extinction, an important consequence for both biology and geology.

She also describes her early research building high-pressure furnaces to melt rock powder. She casually mentions how her arc welder used to shock her through her eye socket. These furnaces would run for six months at a time, sometimes breaking through “explosions like gunshots”. After about a year of building and running the experiment, his samples hadn’t thawed, so he started again at even higher temperatures and pressures.


Another formula in the book is the equivalent of a manifesto rejecting traditional methods of teaching science and math, such as “trying to train dogs using an electric collar”, where progress is a test of trial and grade. “There is a myth that people with high academic research achievement got there through an inherent disciplinary talent or a drive from childhood,” writes Elkins-Tanton.

His approach favors asking questions, finding answers through research, and synthesizing results, which is usually not the case until the postgraduate level. These ideas led him to co-found Beagle Learning, an education platform, and to patent a system of inquiry-driven learning.

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