Jill Tarter: Co-founder and former director of the SETI Institute

The growing role of women in shaping global space endeavors is evidenced by their movement into leadership roles within academia, government and industry. This profile adds to an occasional series of SpaceNews articles that spotlights leading women in the field of space exploration.

Sometimes the hardest part of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence is finding the money to keep the hunt going. The non-profit SETI Institute that astronomer Jill Tarter co-founded in 1984 was all of nine years old in 1993 when the U.S. Congress told NASA to stop funding SETI research.

Tarter, whose real-life exploits were the inspiration for Carl Sagan’s science-fiction classic “Contact,” stepped down as the SETI Institute’s director in 2012 to focus on fundraising full time. She’s currently the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the Mountain View, California-based institute and an unpaid adviser to Breakthrough Initiatives, a private organization established in 2015 to pump $100 million into the hunt for ET.

When Tarter, 72, isn’t helping raise the money the SETI Institute needs to continue and expand its search for telltale signs of distant civilizations that might be hiding in radio waves buffeting the Earth, she’s working with science writer Sarah Scoles to detail her storied career and passion for probing the unknown in a book. “Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” is due out next year.

Tarter, who won the Women in Aerospace Lifetime Achievement award in 1989 for her pioneering work, was saddened by the sexual harassment scandal that rocked the University of California, Berkeley’s astronomy department last year — decades after she helped blaze a trail there for women astronomers. Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy resigned his post last October — and stepped down as principal investigator of the Breakthrough Listen project — after a university investigation found that the famed exoplanet hunter had sexually harassed graduate students for nearly a decade. For Tarter, the Marcy episode was strong reminder of the power game that disadvantages young people on their career-building paths.

Tarter was interviewed by SpaceNews contributor Leonard David.

How can someone like Geoff Marcy still get away with sexually harassing grad students for so long?

It is because everybody kept it a secret…mostly an open secret. The community didn’t out the perpetrator. It just took incoming young students aside and told them to “beware.” Hopefully, this time, the aggregate angst will encourage transparency. It is brutally hard for the victims to press a case. If they want to stay in science, they are likely to lose the decades of recommendations and telescope access that our academic apprenticeship extracts from those going up the ladder.

In spite of men like Marcy, we’re still seeing more and more women ascend to upper-echelon space jobs, aren’t we?

 Last year, as president of the California Academy of Sciences, I held a summit of women in science. It was an opportunity to be in the company of women, rather than one of a token number of women in a big crowd of men, and I was overwhelmed by the caliber of these women from across the spectrum in science, technology, engineering and math. In general, they aren’t just bubbling to the top. They’ve actually been there long enough to fight into the ranks of whatever you call echelon positions.

As a leader and a scientist, how does presenting to a room of mostly men differ from presenting to mostly women?

It’s not quite fair, but it feels like, in a male-dominated room, there’s just a lot more aggression … like, “my idea is right and the rest of you shut up and listen.” In a female-orchestrated discussion, women are no less shy about putting forward their own ideas. But they want to understand other points of view, offering ways to enhance or improve an approach. So it’s inclusion as opposed to “me first.”

Women still account for just under one-third of the U.S. science and engineering workforce.

Your reaction?

I certainly would have hoped for better. The current numbers are better than the roughly 12 percent when I received my degrees, but nowhere near where they should be. I was the only woman in an undergraduate class of 300 engineers at Cornell back in the 1960s. From that perspective, I have seen improvement.

Your advice today to a young women aspiring to a space science career?

I think young people should find something that they love and enjoy doing, work like hell to become very, very good at it, and then look for ways to use those skills. And realize that although they gained satisfaction for one thing, they may garner extreme satisfaction from applying those skill sets to some totally far-out field. Particularly, they should remember what they are going to be doing in the future hasn’t been invented yet. You need to have self-confidence to take a chance [and] be willing to change or shift in direction.

Your fortitude and resolve were captured by actress Jodie Foster’s portrayal of Ellie Arroway in the 1997 movie “Contact.” Does the real Jill Tarter ever feel overshadowed by Jodie Foster’s depiction?

Are you kidding? Jodie Foster is not only whip-smart, but she’s also very kind and thoughtful. The movie did two things for my life. First of all, it put me on everybody’s speaker list. Secondly, it allowed me to ask Jodie for favors in doing voiceover work for an educational video we made at the SETI Institute and for a great digital dome planetarium show — “Life, A Cosmic Story” — produced at the California Academy of Sciences.

When you co-founded the SETI Institute in 1984, did you think that you’d still be searching for the first telltale signals in 2016?

Yes. I was acutely aware of just how large and multi-dimensional the cosmic haystack is that we are trying to search through.

Thirty-two years of searching, so far, without contact. What drives your dedication to this quest?

Waiting for ET to land on the lawn of the White House and say, “take me to your leader” isn’t exactly a viable search strategy. The call-to-arms for the scientific and engineering community is to stop asking the priests and philosophers what to believe, and to start doing experiments to find out what is actually out there, or not.

You’ve had your own political and scientific battles in promoting SETI, even more so in bringing public and private funding into the field through the SETI Institute. Has it gotten any easier?

It’s still a hard job. We’ve had to go through all of the hoops of building community, writing pre-project proposals and white papers. And that took a lot of time. And I have served on every NASA advisory committee known to man that could possibly comment on this new exploratory science. I’ve been spending my time recently on how do you plan for the future in SETI. How do you place your bets?

This summer’s discovery of the planet Proxima b circling our nearest neighboring star must be gratifying, if not vindication for SETI?

It’s a good one, potentially. How delightful that nature put a laboratory out there that we can actually look at right in our backyard … to either amplify or discount some of our theories.

You are an unfunded adviser on Breakthrough Initiatives, through which Russian billionaire Yuri Milner is pumping $100 million into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He’s pledged another $100 million for Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to send tiny, laser-propelled probes to Alpha Centauri. Great timing?

The Starshot people are over the moon. They started this last year without knowing any planet within the Centauri system and now they’ve got at least one … and it’s a good one, potentially.

What’s your assessment of SETI’s future?

Over my professional career, the universe has certainly appeared to become more bio-friendly. Everything that we have learned is going in the right direction. The combination of extremophiles that we find here on Earth and the exoplanet detections … they are both game changers. We now think that there’s the potential of more habitable real estate out there than we ever imagined in the past. It certainly adds to the legitimacy of not only asking are there microbes out there, but are there any mathematicians that we can find? So it’s a good time.

I now start my talks by saying the prediction that the 21st century is going to be the century of biology was bold, but not bold enough. I really think that the 21st century is going to be the century of biology on Earth and beyond.