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WORLD FOCUS: NASA wonders, ‘Are we alone?’

August 20, 2015
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

Ellen Stofan is NASA's chief scientist, a planetary geologist, a graduate of the College of William and Mary and the principal adviser to the agency's administrator, Charles Bolden, on science programs and science-related strategic planning and investments.

She is also the public face of NASA. In this capacity she often appears at public forums to inform and educate people about the work her agency does. Last year, she was the keynote speaker at the conclusion of the year-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William & Mary.

On Saturday, Aug. 15, she was the featured speaker at the Lake Placid Institute's Adirondack Roundtable. It is a forum that, according to Mara Jayne Miller, the founder of the Lake Placid Institute and current member of the Board, has as its goal "To bring to Adirondack audiences the work and knowledge of outstanding leaders, experts, or practitioners from the arts and humanities. Our presenters have been from the worlds of finance and economics, history and politics, the visual arts, religion and philosophy, and education."

Article Photos

Ellen Stofan
(Photo provided)

Although Stofan represents the world of science, ostensibly not within the institute's mission of arts and humanities grounded programs, "Her particular expertise and lifelong interest extends to consideration of the possibilities for human life existing and being sustained on planets beyond Earth," Miller said.

Indeed, the main theme of Stofan's talk was about "How we are so close to answering the question - Are we alone?

"From our studies of planets like Mars in this solar system to discovering possibly habitable planets around other stars, we are in an amazing age of discovery," she said.

She also told her audience about NASA's 22 spacecrafts studying this planet and how NASA is watching the effects of climate change happening right now.

"For every dollar we spend at NASA, it has been estimated that we return about four dollars to the U.S. economy through technology applications and spin-offs. So I like to spend a lot of my time not just talking to scientific and engineering audiences, but reaching out whenever I can to let people know what we are doing at NASA," Stofan said in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette.

I asked her, "How important is public support for NASA's mission?"

"I like to think not just of public support but of public engagement," she said. "At NASA we just don't want the public to like what we do; we want them to join us in what we do."

She explained that NASA has an ever-increasing number of opportunities for the general public to help do real science and technology development - helping identify stars that may have planets around them or helping to map areas of Mars. "When I reach out to the public, people get excited about what we are doing, but when they get involved in what we do, then they come along for the ride."

Stofan noted that NASA's budget is not going to greatly increase, while it wants to do big things like get humans to the surface of Mars.

"We have to be innovative. We need to work with our international partners, and we need to work with the private sector. We will not go to Mars alone. This will be a truly collaborative effort," she said.

I asked Stofan about her plans after her term as NASA's chief scientist ends.

"My real passion is kids and STEM (acronym for academic disciplines in science), especially for girls and on international level. We have big challenges in front of us, like climate change, so we need all hands on the deck. But right now, I am laser focused on helping NASA achieve its goals."

Stofan's talk at the Adirondack Roundtable, illustrated with NASA's spectacular photos of the universe, was an unqualified success.

"Ellen Stofan is very intelligent and yet very approachable," said Catherine McGraw, a member of the Lake Placid Institute Board of Directors. "She makes complicated scientific information understandable and speaks very comfortable about complex subjects."


Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.



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