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?