2019 Commencement Speaker

2019 Commencement Speaker: Dr. Ellen Stofan


DR. ELLEN STOFAN is the John and Adrienne Mars Director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. She is the first woman to hold this position.

Dr. Stofan has extensive experience in space-related organizations and a deep research background in planetary geology. She was chief scientist at NASA from 2013 to 2016, serving as the principal advisor on NASA’s strategic planning and programs, and helped guide the development of a long-range plan to get humans to Mars.

Dr. Stofan worked on various strategies for NASA to support commercial activity in low Earth orbit as it transitions from the International Space Station as well as plans to send humans to the moon and Mars in the mid-2020s. She supported NASA’s overall science programs in heliophysics, earth science, planetary science, and astrophysics. While at NASA, she worked with President Barack Obama’s science advisor and the National Science and Technology Council on science policy. Stofan’s research focuses on the geology of Venus, Mars, Saturn’s moon - Titan, and Earth.

She has been published extensively and has received many awards and honors, including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. Dr. Stofan was named one of “CNN’s Extraordinary People of 2014.” She has co-authored the books Planetology: Unlocking the Secrets of the Solar System and Next Earth: What Our World Can Teach Us About Other Planets, both published by National Geographic.

Words of Advice from Dr. Stofan

We asked Dr. Stofan to give her best pieces of advice for our graduates.

What is the best piece of advice you can give a young woman going to college?
My advice would be to really get out there and try everything. If somebody presents an opportunity to you and you think it's not something you're totally interested in, go ahead and try it. You never know where those paths are going to lead you and you never know what skills you're going to learn that are actually going to help you later in life.

What has been the biggest impact on you as a successful woman in STEM?
The biggest impact on me has really been the mentors that have helped me throughout my career. They not only would provide me advice on things like, "don't just present problems, go ahead and come up with some possible solutions," but also really helping to promote me as I went through, and they helped me find new jobs. So as you go through your career, really look for those mentors, look for those people who are going to help you and look out for you as you go through your life.

What is your hope for this generation of high school graduates?
In this year, where we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moonshot, I really challenge all these girls. I think they're going to be amazing in terms of what is their moonshot. They're going to go on to help deal with climate change, help make the world a better place, to really help make this a more sustainable planet; and I'm really excited to see what they're going to accomplish.

What do you see as the significance of an all-girls education?
When I meet girls who have gone to an all-girls school, they are so much more self confident, poised, willing to speak up, willing to lean in; and I think girls education gives girls the confidence that they're going to need to succeed not just in college, but in the workplace.

What motivates you to break barriers on a daily basis?
What motivates me is really trying to make the world better for the next generation. What's really motivating me right now is how we change the face of science, technology, engineering, and math to look more like our population rather than just men because if we do that, we're going to tap into the talent of a whole range of people that are going to help us address the big challenges we have going forward.