From Siberia With Caribou Meat, Social Passion, And Serious Scientific Breakthroughs

Adventures in geodynamics, courtesy of Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton was sitting on the chilled floor of a cargo plane flying over Siberia when she got her first whiff of caribou.

On a trip hunting geological specimens, Elkins-Tanton and her crew had just boarded a cargo plane in Russia. They'd had their gear and rock samples stashed in the hold of the craft, but then discovered the seats on the plane were all taken. So they padded the cold metal floor with camping gear, linked arms around the aircraft support beams, and settled in for a few hours of flying.

That's when the odd smell wafted past.

The troupe made their way to the back of the airplane, expecting find more equipment, and discovered, to their surprise, that it was crammed full of caribou meat. The whole frozen caribou, on the their way to restaurants in Moscow, were beginning to thaw. Thus the olfactory onslaught.

When not hanging with dead reindeer, Elkins-Tanton is the director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington D.C., where she leads a group of planetary scientists and astrophysicists. "My role coming in here is to make the scientific life of the staff here as productive and pleasant as possible, so they can produce the best possible science," she says.

That sure seems to be going well: Elkins-Tanton recently won a Lowell Thomas award from the Explorer's Club for her research work on the volcanic formations in Siberia. "We got funded 5 years ago by the NSF to investigate what I think of as one of the biggest mysteries in earth science," she says--250 million years ago, in the largest extinction in Earth's history, about 70% of all land life and more than 90% percent of ocean life died.

"We kind of came close to wiping out multicellular life for a while. And the amazing thing about this extinction is that nobody can figure out what caused it," Elkins-Tanton says. The extinction event took place around the same time that the Siberian continent burped up an estimated 6 million cubic kilometers of magma, coating a large part of central Russia in lava. While it's been tempting for researchers to link the extinction event with the lava flood, a strong relationship as to how it happened has yet to be developed.

A recent finding from the Elkins-Tanton team was the discovery of unexpected traces of fluorine and chlorine mixed in with the sulphur and carbon in the rocks. When this set of elements is heated, as they would be in a lava pool, they form naturally occurring chlorofluorocarbons. "So this was a way in which the earth with no human intervention of any kind could destroy its own ozone layer and cause huge global warming." Part of the project in the Siberian Traps is to determine if such chemicals in the atmosphere could have resulted in destructive climate change.

This project leads Elkins-Tanton and a group of dedicated scientists in helicopters to remote towns and villages in Russia every summer. In search of samples, they're frequently out alone in the wilderness, dropped off by air or boating down remote rivers collecting samples en route.

Before her life as a thrill-seeking geochemist (or geo-dynamicist, as she is sometimes referred to in inner circles) Elkins-Tanton worked in business and publishing, and started her own one-woman consulting firm. Eventually she made her way back to science, and leads research projects on early stage planet formation in addition to this project in Siberia. Now as DTM chief, one of the newer initiatives Elkins-Tanton is behind is training early career scientists--postdocs, fresh out of grad school--in professional skills like lab management.

Elkins-Tanton's path is unusual in scientific circles where the norm is to plow through university levels, stacking degree on degree. Elkins-Tanton left academia shortly after earning a combined bachelors and masters degree in geology at MIT in 1987.

"I wanted to find out about what people at MIT and other scientific places call the 'rest of the world,'" she says. Her first job was as a management consultant where she quickly encountered situations that didn't play by the rigid rules that she was used to. "If I could think up a way to do it in my head, and convince other people to do it, it would happen," Elkins-Tanton recalls. "It's kind of like magic after you've been in science, where you're kind of oppressed by the physical rules of the world."

Gigs at International Wine Review and as a circulation forecaster at U.S. News and World Report followed. So did the birth of her son, and raising sheep on a Maryland farm, and training her border collies to be competition-ready sheep dogs. "The thing I learned about myself was that I thrived on challenge and change and enjoyed having a lot going on in my world."

Her next job was at St. Mary's College as a math lecturer, which is where she realized she missed teaching and missed science. (She met her husband there, when he came to supervise an early class she taught. "I got an A+ and a date for coffee," she says.)

Her round of applications landed her back at a familiar place for graduate school."I arrived back at MIT for my PhD on the week of my 10-year reunion from undergraduate," Elkins-Tanton recounts, "and with a child, who was going into kindergarten." This made her a non-traditional student. "In the end I was shocked to discover, and I continue to be shocked to this day that it wasn't a hinderance to my career." People management lessons she'd picked up along the way came to her aid, however. "I couldn't spend 15 hours a day in the lab as a grad student, I had to be really efficient. All those skills that I learned in the in-between years really came in handy. So the strange, really circuitous route really worked out for me."

After her PhD, Elkins-Tanton worked as a researcher at Brown University for five years, before which she was hired back on the faculty at the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at MIT, where she continues to hold a visiting scientist post, working alongside faculty who'd advised her on her thesis. (Her office faced the Charles River in the building in which university hackers turned into a live, playable Tetris game).

Back home after the Siberian adventure for this year, Elkins-Tanton is now exploring another new frontier from the comfort of her office: social media. She's been live tweeting from conferences and interacting with the online science community to help get the word out about research at the DTM. It's also part of her plan to train a new breed of scientist.

The DTM has visiting postdoctoral students--new PhDs who stop by for a few years to grow into their PhD skin before being hired in faculty positions elsewhere as members of faculty. "This is a vulnerable moment in a scientific person's lifetime. It's difficult to get a permanent job in science and you have to really prove yourself at the postdoc level," Elkins-Tanton says. DTM introduced a new program to train postdocs in all the skills they don't get during their PhD: How to write budgets, how to manage a lab with varied members, how to talk to the press. "I'm hoping we can package it a bit and make it available first of all over the web, and then as a concept for how to help PhDs make the transition," Elkins-Tanton says.

Recruiting and training young scientists is one of the motivations that drivers her Twitter account--"I find that it's pretty easy to reach postdocs that way--and science outreach to non-scientists is another of her goals. "I just worry that supporting science and being interested in science for a lay person now is more like eating your vegetables," Elkins-Tanton says. "And I want to share the part of it that's really fun. Not the part that's reading out a text book, getting the feeling that all of this has been known for a million years because of course the truth is, we know almost nothing. And we're left with a million questions."

Which is where she her tweeting comes in. "The thrill of having a million questions is that sometimes in your mind you have that spark of an answer... and that's what I would love to share with everyone in the world who is not a scientist."

For tweets from Siberia and beyond, follow Lindy Elkins-Tanton on Twitter.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about adventures in science and space. Follow on Twitter, Google+.

[Images: Office photo: MIT; all others: Scott Simper]

(Disclosure: Nidhi Subbaraman once took a class at MIT with Elkins-Tanton.)

Ed. Note: An earlier version of this story was edited to clarify several points: The plane Elkins-Tanton and crew took is better described as a cargo jet, not a charter jet; the plane's crew, not Elkins-Tanton's crew, put their gear and rock samples in the hold of the craft; the majority of the crew is not grad students as previously described; and the location of the flood basalts is Central Russia. Also, the name of the institute was corrected to Carnegie Institution for Science.

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