France Cordova — Rising Star

Córdova led the department of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State from 1989 to 1993 (where she is pictured teaching, above). She then became the youngest person and first woman to hold the position of NASA chief scientist. Photo: Courtesy of the Penn State University Archives.


At a time when most graduates went on to postdoc work at other universities, you began your career at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Why did you choose that route?

Los Alamos offered a full staff position to work on basic research, as opposed to a shorter-term assignment. I felt that would afford me the time to really delve deeply into my subjects—and it did. During 10 wonderful years there, I worked on a number of projects, published a good deal, and served on various national committees. I also met my husband, and we had our two children. A decade later, in 1989, Garmire, who had moved to Pennsylvania State University, called with an offer to lead the school’s astronomy department. He asked, “Are you done having fun out there? Ready to get to work?” I laughed and said, “No, but I’ll see if I can have fun working at Penn State.” That really marked my transition from pure research into administration.

In 1993, you left Penn State to become the first woman and the youngest chief scientist at NASA. What was your role?

I served as a bridge between scientists and the administration. As many who work at Caltech and JPL know, missions in space require an enormous investment in capital and time, so it’s essential to rigorously align priorities with resources. We can send a rocket into space, sure—but to do what? What do we want to know? NASA’s administrator at the time, Daniel Goldin, wanted the missions to be informed by the most pressing scientific questions. The bulk of the scientists who work on space are not inside of NASA, they’re distributed among the nation’s universities, labs, and other research institutes. My role was to bring leading scientists into direct dialogue with NASA’s senior leaders to help provide clarity and vision to missions. I think that my experience at Caltech, where scientists blend closely with engineers at JPL, helped me greatly.

Since NASA, your career has been defined by a succession of leadership positions at universities. How do you see the role of universities evolving today in scientific research and education?

Universities have always been incredibly important to the ecology of science and engineering in this country. They are the places where you have a concentration of intellect, a culture of collaboration, and the freedom to create on a scale that is difficult to conceive happening anywhere else. That is why I have been proud to spend the bulk of my career advocating to advance resources and opportunities for universities. Each university is unique in terms of culture, aspirations, and challenges.

As vice-chancellor for research at the University of California in Santa Barbara, I worked to establish an experimental fund to foster interdisciplinary research across the campus. Hard to imagine today, but the idea of cross-departmental collaboration was still a new idea at the time. Now it’s increasingly a standard practice at major universities.

As chancellor of UC Riverside, I initiated the foundation to develop a medical school. When it opened in 2010, it was the first new medical school in the UC system, and in the country, in more than 40 years. The first class graduated a couple of summers ago, and it still brings tears to my eyes.

When I became president of Purdue, the university faced a number of budget cuts from the state of Indiana, so I worked to garner broader resources for research and at the same time investigated where we could be more efficient. We made an in-depth study and projection of the next decade for the university, generating a number of ideas and reforms—some initiated, some still experimental. My administration also oversaw the establishment of Purdue’s College of Health and Human Sciences and its Global Policy Research Institute. The result is that today, Purdue is in an even stronger position as a research institution.