France Cordova

The Long

France Córdova (PhD ’79)

In 2014, France Córdova (PhD ’79) was confirmed as the 14th director of the National Science Foundation, the culmination of more than three decades in science, technology, and academic leadership roles. We spoke with the Distinguished Alumna (’07) about her remarkable career, the advancement of women in academia, and her enthusiasm for the future of science.

How did you first become interested in science?

Growing up, I was always fascinated by science. In high school, I remember learning that Charlie Townes (PhD ’39) had invented the maser. I was riveted. But there was no encouragement in my family or mentorship from my teachers to pursue a career in science. In fact, my mother expected that I would get what she called an MRS degree: Meet somebody, get married, and raise the children. That was just the expectation of the times. 

Despite that interest, you initially earned your degree at Stanford in English, then pursued a career in journalism.

Well, I don’t know if I pursued it very hard. It’s true that in addition to science, I also loved literature, drama, debate...everything, really. I chose to study English at Stanford, perhaps to have a more flexible undergraduate degree. And like most English majors, I harbored aspirations to become a distinguished writer, so I went to the LA Times. I didn’t call ahead; I just walked in with my little writing portfolio. The manager, perhaps amused at this kid coming in off the street, said the only opening they had was as a copy girl. I’ve always believed that you should just get your foot in the door, so I said, “Of course, yeah, any job.” I soon covered some minor young actors and singers, nobody too famous. Eventually, though, I became restless and decided that I really wanted to pursue my first passion—to become a scientist.

Your entry to Caltech wasn’t exactly the typical path. How did you get started?

I found my way to Gordon Garmire, a physicist who is best known for his work in high-energy astronomy instrumentation and the diffuse X-ray background. He gave me a job, not as a graduate student but writing computer programs to analyze data. Once again, if it meant getting my foot in the door, I said yes. Then I asked if I could audit courses. I did all the required tests, was graded, and—I think to the surprise of the faculty—did really well. So they decided to admit me as a graduate student in physics.

Caltech was a rigorous, collaborative, and fun environment. As graduate students, you were able to learn from and work right alongside all of these incredible minds, like theoretical physicists Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman. You take it for granted when you’re a student. There was also an experimental, bootstrap, hands-on atmosphere. I remember once nearly electrocuting myself at White Sands while scaling up the framework of a rocket in the middle of a lightning storm, all to put some duct tape on an instrument. I have a feeling they wouldn’t allow that now, but that was the kind of place Caltech was. You could do theoretical work and also get your hands involved with experimentation.

While working on your thesis at Caltech, you famously repositioned a satellite to observe a star system for X-rays. This seems like a big gamble for a young researcher. What led you to take the chance? 

Under Garmire, I was researching binary systems. Scientists had long hypothesized that when two stellar bodies are in close proximity, there is often an exchange of matter. For example, a small star might transfer matter episodically onto a companion white-dwarf star. As the matter accretes onto the dwarf, it can lead to a visible brightening or even, over time, an explosive event, such as a collapse to form a neutron star. These visible “outbursts” had been observed since the 1850s, well before anyone knew what they were. There were more recent predictions that they would have X-ray emissions. We wanted to be able to detect that, but you had to catch the brightening at the rare moment of mass transfer.

One morning I got a call from an amateur astronomer based in Prescott, Arizona, informing me that a system was going into outburst. I immediately ran to Garmire to ask if we could point a satellite, the High Energy Astronomical Observatory (HEAO-1), at the event.

He said, “Well, that’s a costly thing to do. Are you sure that you’re going to see something?” I said, “Yes. Absolutely. It will be transformational.” What else could I say? I had done my homework and was pretty sure, but I also could have been wrong. Garmire picked up the phone, called the Goddard Space Flight Center, and we repositioned the satellite. 

I had to wait a couple of days to get the tape, then I went to the batch computer center on campus to process it. When the data came out…there was just a huge signal. Absolutely unmistakable. I ran over to the basement of the Athenaeum, where grad students met to drink beer and have popcorn, to find one of my colleagues. I was delirious. I needed someone to see it, to confirm what I was looking at. 

It was one of those thrilling moments when you have a theory, you gamble on an experiment, and the evidence just comes through.

At home, my mother listened to me rattle on about it. She smiled, put her arm around me, and said, “France, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about, but I know it’s very important. Congratulations.”

Our own experiences inform the questions that drive scientific discovery. We are richer for the diversity of our culture, knowledge, and viewpoints.