William & Mary

Ellen Stofan's prepared Charter Day remarks

  • Ellen Stofan '83
    Ellen Stofan '83  The W&M alumna and chief scientist for NASA spoke at W&M's 2016 Charter Day ceremony on Feb. 5, 2015.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The following are the prepared remarks of Ellen Stofan '83 for the 2016 Charter Day ceremony. - Ed.

Thank you, it’s great to be back with you again at my college ‘home’ in Williamsburg. I have many special memories of this place, and I’m incredibly honored to receive this recognition.

Being here with you today is coming full circle – back to my academic roots and to the place where my journey as a planetary scientist began. I’m reflecting on all the times I sat in this very hall, just like you. It was here that I came as a freshman – full of enthusiasm and eager to learn – to register for classes. I know I’m dating myself, but we had to do it in person … with CARDS back then.

My four years here were an amazing journey that’s shaped my life on so many levels. I met my husband, Tim, here. I also made some lifelong friendships during my time here, which I cherish to this day. Two of my children graduated from William and Mary. My nephew is currently a student here. William and Mary was, and continues to be, part of the fabric of my life.

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My undergraduate experience cemented my love of geology – but more importantly, it nurtured and continued to ignite my love of LEARNING … from professors like Steve Clement and Jerre Johnson, who always had time for me, to English and art history classes that taught me to write and look deeper for meaning. I learned more about myself as a person, I learned how to be a researcher, a questioner, and even a singer of silly sorority songs.

I did not imagine back then that I would be here before you today – I’m honored and humbled to receive this honorary degree on this special day.

Charter Day is actually my favorite William and Mary event, and it all revolves around the phrase – “In All Time Coming.” To me – it represents the timelessness of this place- that every generation has and will receive an exemplary education, will give back to their country, community and alma mater, will trip on the brick sidewalks, and will be a member of the Tribe “in all time coming.”

I hope that all of you here today will feel the same way. For an institution only thrives if those who love it cherish it, and give back with time and treasure. While William and Mary shall be for “all time coming,” it is NOT a static place – it grows and becomes better with each passing year, because of those who came before us … those who are here today … and those who will make their mark in the future. An institution relies on its faculty to teach and inspire- but it’s students and alumni are its heart and soul.

Take this day to celebrate those who had a vision centuries ago of a place of learning in the Virginia Colony who understood the importance of creating a research university, a place where students can be challenged and can challenge, and then go out and change the world.

William & Mary is “the alma mater of the nation,” not only because of the founding fathers who attended, but because of ALL who’ve gone on to lead this great nation and to make contributions in their respective fields.

I have the good fortune of working at an institution that is also much bigger than all of us who work there. NASA’s brand is one of the most recognized around the world- for so many, we represent the most powerful aspects of humankind- the wish to explore beyond the horizon. Last summer we flew a spacecraft past Pluto, after a lonely 9 ½ year journey. The feeling during the flyby was electrifying. NASA received congratulatory messages from all over the world. People not only fell in love with Pluto’s ‘heart,’ they shared that with all the strife in the world, the mission inspired them and showed what humankind is capable of achieving.

NASA now has our sights on a journey to Mars- fulfilling the President’s goal of sending humans to the Red Planet and safely returning them in the 2030s. This isn’t just the subject of science fiction, it’s REAL, and NASA is on it. Just last fall we announced evidence of liquid water on the surface of present-day Mars. In our lifetimes, NASA and its partners hope to answer some of our most fundamental questions about life beyond Earth:

Does Mars harbor microbial life today? Was there life on the Red Planet billions of years ago?  

What can Mars teach us about Earth’s past, present and future?

Could Mars be a safe home for humans one day?

The students here today at William and Mary are among the “Mars Generation.” One of you in this room could be among the first humans to set foot on Mars, “in all time coming.”

NASA is not only tasked with space discovery and exploration, we’re working with scientists worldwide to better understand the dramatic and concerning changes happening to our home planet due to climate change. These are some of the toughest questions facing us today: how Earth is changing and how our planet could change in the future, and how humanity can cope and overcome these changes. From rising sea levels and record temperatures to the availability of freshwater, NASA is helping to unravel the complexities of our planet from its core to the highest reaches of its atmosphere. What we learn about OTHER planets in our solar system, such as Venus and Mars, provides vital clues about processes at work on Earth as well. We are using NASA data to help make countries around the world more resilient to the effects of climate change, including severe weather events and drought, already happening today.

There are those who say, “Why should we fund space exploration when we have potholes to fill?” Of course, I believe in safe roads, and NASA is responsible for a great deal of highway safety research, but we ALSO need to continue to reach for the stars.

It’s too simplistic to make this about potholes versus black holes.

It’s like saying: why do we need electricity…when we have fire? 

NASA isn’t just about space exploration and humans on Mars, we’re about making life better here at home through endeavoring to do great and challenging things.

NASA’s not just about Tang (for those old enough to remember that powdery space drink). There are many examples of things in our day-to-day lives that came about as a result of technologies pioneered by NASA.

It was just a couple weeks ago that our area was blasted by a monster storm – dubbed “Snowzilla” by the Washington Post. NOAA forecasters – utilizing NASA technology and data along with other information – NAILED this particular storm – the timing, its likely path, and the range of accumulation. That allowed people to make plans well in advance to minimize risk. NASA has 19 current orbiting missions that observe Earth. In the last two decades we’ve made great progress to help researchers understand more about global impacts of El Nino and human-based carbon emissions.

NASA research has also led to improvements in GPS technology … water purification … drone research … anti-icing systems … LED technology … artificial limbs … better software … food safety (we’re even growing lettuce in space!) … and the list goes on … By going to the Moon, working every day on the International Space Station, moving humans towards Mars, we improve life here on Earth.

One of the things I treasure most about my years at William & Mary … and now my time at NASA … is that the focus is on understanding the unknown. As humans, we’re innately curious. With our new James Webb Space Telescope that launches in 2018, we’ll be able to look almost as far back in the universe as the Big Bang. Our Kepler telescope has identified thousands of planets revolving around other stars. What are the origins of the universe? And what lies ahead for humankind? Instead of stifling the curiosity that has propelled us to where we are today and led to technological innovations too numerous to count, we should celebrate it and invest in it. It’s our future.

Yes, we can fill potholes AND send a spacecraft to Pluto.  

As I mentioned, we have significant challenges ahead such as addressing climate change and putting humans on Mars. For this … it’s “all hands on deck.”

So recently I saw a quote from a very senior judicial official – “Why do we need diversity in physics classes?” The answer is simple: because science is for everyone. Because we need all the brainpower we can get. Because relying on less than all of your population is no way to get anything done.

Diversity brings different ways of looking at and solving problems. I’m not talking about diversity for diversity’s sake – by casting a wider net we invite more ideas, solutions and perspectives. This speeds up the process, and we don’t have time to waste.

And it’s not just about diversity – it’s about inclusion. It s not enough to open the door – it is about ensuring that those who come through it feel welcome and safe.

We have a responsibility as a society to ensure that everyone – regardless of their gender, skin color, sexual preference or economic status – has the opportunity to contribute and that everyone’s potential is realized. William and Mary knew that when we opened our doors to women in 1918, and when we finally integrated people of color so many years later.

Human capital is our most precious resource – EVERYONE is welcome and NEEDED on this amazing journey! 

Let me tell you about a woman named Katherine Johnson. She was born not too far from here … in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia in 1918. She was known as the girl who loved to count. She was fascinated by numbers. By the time Katherine was 10 years old, she was a freshman in high school – an amazing feat at a time when schools for African-Americans usually stopped in 8th grade, if you were lucky enough to go to school at all.

Katherine graduated from high school when she was 14 and after years as a teacher and stay-at-home mom, she went to work for NASA’s predecessor – NACA – to calculate and measure results of wind tunnel tests right here at Langley Research Center In Hampton. It was considered a rather tedious job, but not for Katherine and other women who were hired at the time. So Katherine put her math skills to work as a counter—or in those days, they called these women “computers.”

As a human “computer,” Katherine calculated the trajectory for the first American in space, Alan Shephard. Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn asked that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7. That’s how valuable she was. She is one of the unsung women African American heroes of our country- who didn’t just carry on- she helped to carry the nation’s space program, despite what she had to deal with living at that time in this place. She went to meetings where she wasn’t invited – and not totally welcome- because she knew she belonged, and that they needed her skills.

Last November 24th, Katherine received the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack Obama.

I hope her story inspires you as much as it has me.

In your life, there will likely be people who will tell you – or give you a clear message – you aren’t welcome here. You don’t belong in this room. But you DO belong. Channel your inner “Katherine Johnson”- you belong, you have a lot to contribute, and we need you to solve the tough challenges we have as a society. Together- as a Tribe- we can do anything. William & Mary is giving you the foundation to contribute so much, and is making sure you have that opportunity. I am so grateful I had that opportunity and that I can be with you here today.

Whether it’s cracking open rocks in the geology department here at William and Mary … or falling in love with numbers ... or serving in whatever directions your passions take you…find your calling and pursue it with everything you’ve got. Remember to thank those who cheered you on along the way. Then come full circle in your life by giving back. That way the cycle will go on … in all time coming.