Director of the National Science Foundation: Who Is Dr. France Córdova?

Saturday, August 31, 2013

President Barack Obama has nominated an astrophysicist who started out as a creative writer and has divided her scientific career between public service and work in academia to be the next head of the National Science Foundation. Dr. France Anne Córdova, who is president emerita of Purdue University, would succeed Dr. Subra Suresh, who took the job in June 2010.

 

Born August 5, 1947, and baptized as Françoise at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, France Córdova is the oldest of twelve children of an Irish-American mother and a Mexican-American father. Her father, Frederick Córdova, was a West Point graduate posted in Paris to supervise the Cooperative for American Remittances Everywhere (CARE), a nonprofit organization set up after World War II to distribute food and clothing in war-torn Europe. France graduated Bishop Amat High School in La Puente, California, and went on to Stanford University, where she earned a B.A. in English in 1969.

 

As part of an anthropology class at Stanford, Córdova conducted field work at a Zapotec Indian pueblo in Oaxaca, Mexico, writing a novella based on her experiences, The Women of Santo Domingo, which was named one of the top ten entries in a contest sponsored by Mademoiselle magazine. She also turned a collection of Zapotec recipes into a cookbook, and spent much of the 1970s as a staff member at The Los Angeles Times news service.

 

Initially inspired by the July 1969 moon landing, Córdova decided on a radical career change, from writing to physics. She earned a PhD in Physics at the California Institute of Technology in 1979, where she was one of only two women in a class of eighteen. Her dissertation was entitled, “X-ray observations of dwarf novae.”

 

Starting her career as a scientist, Córdova served as staff scientist in the Earth and Space Sciences Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1979 to 1989 and as deputy group leader from 1988 to 1989. Moving on to academia, she was chair of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State University from 1989 to 1993.

 

Returning to government service, Córdova was the youngest ever and first woman to serve as NASA chief scientist, the primary scientific advisor to NASA administration and a key bridge between NASA and the broader scientific community, from 1993 to 1996.

 

Córdova returned to academia in a series of mostly administrative roles. She served as vice-chancellor for Research and a professor of Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara from 1997 to 2002, and as chancellor and distinguished professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California at Riverside from 2002 to 2007.

 

In 2007, Córdova was named president of Purdue University, where she presided over the establishment of Purdue’s College of Health and Human Sciences and its Global Policy Research Institute. As she stepped down in 2012, Purdue re-named its Córdova Recreational Sports Center, whose $98 million renovation was approved during her presidency.

 

Córdova’s scientific contributions have been in the areas of observational and experimental astrophysics, multi-spectral research on x-ray and gamma ray sources, and space-borne instrumentation. She has published more than 150 scientific papers, and has a current experiment on the European Space Agency’s X-Ray Multi-Mirror Mission.

 

In September 2007, she was appointed to the board of directors of BioCrossroads, a government program trying to convert Indiana into a high-tech hotbed based on science and public-private collaborations. Córdova was appointed by President George W. Bush to the National Science Board in 2008, and by Barack Obama to the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution in 2009. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and is a national associate of the National Academies.

 

Córdova is married to science educator Christian J. Foster, whom she met while rock climbing in 1983, and with whom she has two adult children, Anne-Catherine and Stephen.

-Matt Bewig

 

To Learn More:

Official Biography

France Anne Córdova (Notable Hispanic American Women, Book 2)

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