France Córdova sometimes jokes that her marriage began on the rocks. That’s because she met her husband while rock climbing on the cliffs of the Rio Grande. Climbing is a hobby that she began in college during the 1960s, but it also is a metaphor for her success in astrophysics, science administration and policy, and academic leadership. Step after step, putting one hand above the other and not giving up, she has risen to great heights, studying the cosmos while also becoming a national role model for young people, especially women, who dream of doing the same. Along the way, she took opportunities that were often unexpected, like a climber taking advantage of a gap in a rock that could not be foreseen at the beginning of the climb.
A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Association for Women in Science, winner of the Distinguished Service Medal of NASA, named as a Kilby Laureate, for "contributions to society through science, technology, innovation, invention, and education”, nominated to Stanford University’s Multicultural Alumni Hall of Fame, named by Hispanic Business Magazine among 80 Elite Hispanic Women, granted the Women in Space Science Award of the Adler Planetarium, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Associate of the National Academies –these honors accumulated during the half a century ascent of Córdova’s career, and she has yet to reach the pinnacle.
On March 31, 2014, after being nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the US Senate, Córdova was sworn in as the 14th director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Prior to this milestone, she did research in experimental astrophysics leading to more than 150 scientific publications, served as chief scientist for NASA, helped start a new medical school, and served five years as president of Purdue University. Full of energy, she was ready to explore new areas when she assumed leadership of NSF (Figure 1), and she’s still moving upward at full speed.
A big family and a world that resisted women in the physical sciences
France Anne-Dominic Córdova was born August 5, 1947, in Paris, France, where her father, a Mexican-American importer and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, was working at the time. She grew up in La Puente, California, the eldest of 12 children. Córdova’s parents expected their firstborn to set a good example by excelling and doing especially well in school, but they did not expect her to study science. Nevertheless, in 7th grade, she took a liking to physics after learning about the Bohr model of the atom. She found the hydrogen atom beautiful, but even more fascinating for her was the idea that humans could know so much about something they could not see. This inspired her to read about the scientific process that had led early physicists to atomic theory. Her hero was Albert Einstein. She wondered if she might become a physicist herself, but that idea looked close to impossible when she entered Bishop Amat High School, a religious institution that separated the girls from the boys. The girls learned some science, but the teachers discouraged them from even considering a science career. Never was a female science role model invited to visit the school, and never were the students taught about women in science. Even famous female scientists from history like Marie Curie were not part of the curriculum.
When it came to physics, that subject was taught only to boys, though Córdova kept thinking about all that Einstein had given the world. She hoped that she too could make discoveries about the universe, and so she and some of her friends asked to take physics in their junior year. After much debate among the teachers and administrators, the school selected Córdova and four other girls to take physics with the boys. To compensate for what was considered to be a loss for the boys, five boys were allowed to take an art class that previously had been given only to girls.
After graduating at the top of her high school class in 1965, Córdova was named by the California Chamber of Commerce as one of ten outstanding youths in the state. She was admitted to Stanford University, the first girl from her high school to be accepted there. Stanford’s secular academic setting allowed more opportunities for women compared with her religious high school. Nevertheless, in the mid-1960s, the culture throughout the US discouraged women from studying science, especially the physical sciences. Córdova’s parents discouraged their daughter as well, based on the idea that it would be too much of a struggle for a woman to earn a physics degree.
Córdova yielded to the pressure, partly because she had what she calls “wanderlust.” She wanted to travel abroad as an exchange student, and that would be close to impossible for a physics major. She also had another passion, writing, so she decided to major in English. She participated in an exchange program in Florence, Italy, and then went to Mexico to do anthropological fieldwork studying the Zapotec people and their language. Based on her Zapotec research, Córdova wrote a short fictional work, "The Women of Santo Domingo" as a senior project. The story won awards and landed her a guest editor position with Mademoiselle Magazine, set for the summer after her projected Stanford graduation.
She actually graduated early and was ready to leave Stanford in the winter of 1969. Mademoiselle Magazine was based in New York City and Córdova still had wanderlust, so she took her time getting to New York. She lived in Vail, Colorado, so she could ski, then on to Bourbon Street, New Orleans. When Córdova arrived in New York City in June, Mademoiselle presented her with an airline ticket to Israel. It wasn’t something she’d planned, but she jumped at the opportunity to visit another part of the world. Together with the magazine’s other guest editors, Córdova was assigned to create a kind of travel guide for the August issue.
Inspired by astronauts
Along with the magazine job, Córdova also obtained a news writing job with the Los Angeles Times. By age 22, she was on course for a promising writing career, but NASA was also on course for the moon. On July 20, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11 set their feet on the lunar surface. Four months later, Apollo 12 delivered David Scott and James Irwin to another lunar landing site. In the intervening time Córdova saw a PBS documentary about neutron stars (Figure 2), stars so massive that gravity compresses their matter into an ultra-dense clump of pure neutrons. The documentary and the lunar missions reinvigorated her childhood interest in physics and topped it off with a space exploration focus. Now, earning her own money as a writer, Córdova decided to take full control of her life and went back to school with a goal of becoming an astrophysicist. She achieved that goal ten years later in 1979, when she was awarded a Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology.
Córdova’s dissertation research at Caltech focused on double star systems (systems of two stars orbiting one another) and depended on data from orbiting satellites, and from instrument payloads that she, other students, and professors launched on rockets from the missile range in White Sands, New Mexico. In analyzing the data, Córdova discovered a previously unknown phenomenon occurring in double star systems in which one star is in its prime of life and the other in a degenerate state: pulsating X-ray emissions during the transfer of mass from a normal star onto the degenerate star. This was a major discovery in the field of X-ray astronomy.
Alongside the very specialized astrophysics research, Córdova was also drawn to a broader question of whether many of the stars had planets that could support life, including intelligent beings. She yearned to know if humans were alone in the cosmos. But it was for her ground research on double star systems in graduate school that she was offered a job in Los Alamos, New Mexico as a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Division of Earth and Space Science.
At Los Alamos, Córdova focused on radiation emitted by white dwarf stars and pulsars, leading to a multitude of scientific publications that today number more than 150. From Los Alamos, she also organized astronomers around the world, both professional and amateur, to report observations concerning pulsars and other phenomena related to X-ray astronomy (Figure 3). Alongside this, she became active in science outreach, writing and giving presentations aimed at drawing minorities and children, especially girls, into the sciences.
Córdova had started rock climbing back at Stanford and had continued the hobby all the way through her Caltech Ph.D. program, so during her days as a Los Alamos scientist she was an expert climber. After she and her husband, science outreach expert Christian Foster, met on a cliff somewhere above the Rio Grande, the couple had two children. Then, after a decade of research, the Los Alamos lab promoted Córdova to deputy group leader of the Space Astronomy and Astrophysics Group.
In 1989, not long after becoming deputy group leader at Los Alamos, Córdova accepted an offer from Penn State to become professor and head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. At Penn State, she continued astrophysics research for four years, much of which involved utilizing data from X-ray and gamma ray astronomy NASA satellites. Then, in 1993, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin invited Córdova to take a leave of absence from Penn State to become the agency’s next chief scientist. That was a pivotal moment, for the invitation was an opportunity to move from research into overseeing and guiding the research of numerous scientists around the nation. It was a chance to transition from scientist to a maker of science policy.
A childhood dream with drawbacks
The offer from NASA was more than Córdova could have dreamed as a 7th grader fascinated by the Bohr atomic model. It was more than she could have dreamed back in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon had inspired her to return to school. But like hesitating to scale a new precipice on a rock that looked wonderful from the ground, Córdova was reluctant to go to NASA. She liked research and publishing papers and wanted to continue that kind of life.
On the other hand, she also enjoyed being a role model for women and minorities. She was a “first” of so many things, a first woman and a first Latina for virtually every milestone in her academic career. Now, Goldin was offering her the chance to become not only the first woman and first Latina, but the youngest person ever, to lead NASA’s science. Her women friends, including her mother, thus convinced her to accept an offer. The career shift would allow her to become an even greater role model for young women and minorities than she was already. Now, she could use a national stage and impact many more future scientists, plus putting astrophysics research aside had another benefit. As leader of all of NASA’s science activities, she could play a role in the emerging field of astrobiology and the search for humanity’s place in the cosmos. Thus, she moved to Washington DC to work in NASA Headquarters with the intention of returning to Penn State, though she would end up not going back. As in rock climbing, she took step after step, reaching many locations, but never landed in a spot that she had already crossed.
At NASA, Córdova’s role was to be an interface between policy makers at NASA headquarters and the scientific community outside of NASA and to advise the NASA administrator on a range of scientific topics that covered astrophysics, but also weightlessness, the search for life, and observation of the Earth. Her own research made her an expert on orbital instruments, so she was made chair of the Hubble Space Telescope and also coordinated and served in working groups for a host of other missions. She stayed at NASA until 1996 when she accepted a professorship and vice chancellorship at the University of California Santa Barbara.
Continuing the upward climb
At UCSB, Córdova focused on promoting interaction between scientists and people in a range of other fields, including engineering, music, and art. She also facilitated student participation in faculty research and was enjoying administration because of the power it gave her to influence science research, yet she still stayed active in astrophysics herself and has continued in this mode ever since. While at UCSB, she built an X-ray telescope that was selected for a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite called XXM-Newton (Figure 4). The mission was launched in 1999 with Córdova as co-principle investigator. It is the most powerful X-ray telescope ever sent into space and still orbits the Earth today. It is expected to function at least until the end of 2018. Using it, Córdova and her many colleagues have seen X-rays accreting onto black holes, learned more about exploding stars, observed bursts of gamma rays, and made discoveries related to the exotic material that physicists call “dark matter,” which may eventually help to explain the origin of the universe.
While doing all of this research, Córdova has kept climbing the rock of her career, taking opportunity after opportunity to be a leader at different institutions, leaving her mark at each one. At the University of California at Riverside, for instance, she became the first woman and Hispanic to be chancellor (appointed 2002), and also laid the groundwork for the foundation of a new medical school, California’s first in more than 40 years. As president of Purdue University (2007-2012), she established the university’s Global Policy Research Institute and the College of Health and Human Sciences. In 2012, she began a three-year term as chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 2014, Córdova began as director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), where her role is to spearhead advances not only in pure scientific discovery, but also in technology and innovation, as well as outreach in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Projects overseen and funded by NSF cover areas ranging from work deep in the ice of Antarctica to studies depending on craft high up in space. Given her stellar science credentials, supreme talent in communication, and her will to explore and draw budding young students into science, the new position is the perfect match for her. She states frequently that starting out she never had any strategic plan, yet step by step, like climbing a rock, she kept moving and everything has fallen into place.
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