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France Cordova


The Long
View

France Córdova (PhD ’79)

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France Cordova


The Long
View

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.
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France Cordova — Rising Star


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.

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France Córdova — Outlook for the Future


France Córdova — Outlook for the Future


Córdova (right) at the signing in May of this year of an agreement for renewed cooperation between the U.S. and the European Laboratory for Nuclear Research (CERN), with Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (left) and CERN Director-General Rolf-Dieter Heuer (center). Photo: Ken Shipp, U.S. Department of Energy.

 

What do you feel contributed to your success?

I can’t say there was ever a strategy. Part of it was that when an opportunity came, I wasn’t afraid of it. I never considered a lack of experience to be a serious obstacle. If you’re going to a job that has bigger authority, you almost never have all the required experience.

I’ve never felt that I deserved something. Rather, I consider it a privilege to be a part of the various universities and federal agencies that I’ve served, and to be able to contribute to the culture of science and engineering.

What is your sense of the progress women and minorities have made in science-related careers? 

There is no question that diversity is a critical driver of success in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] in the 21st century. Science and engineering certainly affect culture, but it’s also a two-way street; our own experiences inform the questions that drive scientific discovery. We are richer for the diversity of our culture, knowledge, and viewpoints.

Each year, the National Science Foundation publishes a report on underrepresented groups in science and engineering, including women, minorities, and persons with disabilities. I think the data show that things are progressing, but it’s also clear that we still have a great deal of work to do. 

This year, I directed the launch of a new comprehensive national initiative, called NSF INCLUDES, to increase the advancement of all scientists and engineers, including those with backgrounds who may have been traditionally underserved. The goal is to identify and implement programs that are able to really move the needle in broadening the participation of all groups in the sciences.

I often talk to women about their careers and opportunities. When I find someone hesitant at a big jump, perhaps saying, “No, I don’t know if I can do that,” I encourage them to still try.

You have to trust your experience, understand your strengths, and rely on other people to help out. You’ll broaden your opportunities and might actually have fun.

How do we best support and encourage the next generation of scientists and their research? 

I’m always surprised and delighted by the ways in which we expand our understanding. Whether we’re contemplating the first moments of the universe, the fundamentals of life here on Earth, personalized medicine, or the capability of the phone in your pocket—science continues to transform our lives on a daily basis.

I’m often asked what the next big thing will be. We don’t have a crystal ball, and I don’t think it’s our place to prescribe or direct. I view the role of the NSF as a listening agency. We listen carefully for where the heart is beating faster among our potential grantees and then invest accordingly. So perhaps the better question is: Where does your pulse quicken? Where do you think the next big thing will be?