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France Córdova: High Expectations, Persistence, and a Little Luck on the Road to Success

France Córdova, who just retired from the presidency of Purdue University—the first woman to hold the post in the school’s history—has had many other milestones in a career as an astrophysicist, chief scientist for NASA, and university administrator.

Córdova’s distinguished trajectory was set early on, when she showed ingenuity in pursuit of her curiosity about science and a willingness to take risks and seize opportunities. Córdova recounted her lessons learned to a rapt group of 30 young and mid-career scientists at the annual leadership institute of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native American in Science (SACNAS).

The institute, co-organized by SACNAS and AAAS Education and Human Resources, was held 16-20 July at the Washington Hilton hotel. The annual event seeks to foster leadership skills in selected doctoral-level scientists from underrepresented groups. It included group exercises, talks by role models such as Córdova, mentoring, and networking opportunities.

France Córdova

Córdova, the eldest of 12 children born to a Mexican father and an Irish-American mother, came to science in a non-traditional manner. She was a good student at her Roman Catholic high school in Los Angeles, one of only five girls allowed into the physics class, and the first from her school to be accepted at Stanford University. She earned her degree in English and had been working as a journalist before asking herself what she really wanted to be doing by the time she reached 30.

The answer: physics. So she changed gears, determined to find her way into a career in science. She persuaded a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to hire her as a research assistant, and later did the same for another research position at Caltech. She took background courses at the school and impressed her professors. Eventually, she was accepted into the graduate physics program at Caltech, even though she had no undergraduate science degree.

Córdova said few schools have the flexibility—as Caltech did—to offer a spot to someone without undergraduate credentials. But her persistence, and talent, paid off. She turned down several prestigious postdoctoral positions in favor of a permanent staff position with the space astronomy and astrophysics group at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where she stayed for a decade. She then became chair of the astronomy and astrophysics department at Pennsylvania State University, where she was approached in 1993 by NASA administrator Daniel Goldin about joining the agency as chief scientist.

Córdova had some misgivings about leaving the research environment for a policy post in Washington, D.C. But a Penn State colleague asked her: “How can you go around the country and the university talking about how important it is that women have opportunities and take leadership roles and then, when you get this opportunity, you don’t do that yourself?” She took the job, becoming the youngest person and the first woman to become chief NASA scientist.

Although Córdova was in government service for just three years, it opened the door to other administrative posts in academia. “I wouldn’t have had any of those opportunities,” she said, without the leadership experience in NASA. “You have to have some imagination about what this is going to mean, and what it’s going to lead to. And then you have to be a little bit lucky, right?”

Córdova left NASA to become vice chancellor for research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and then, in 2002, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside.

“I had grown up without the word ‘Latina’ or ‘Hispanic’ ever being associated with me,” Córdova told the SACNAS group on 18 July. It wasn’t until she became chancellor at UC Riverside, she said, that her ethnic background came to the fore. Riverside was one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the UC system, and those who had advocated for a Latino chancellor had expectations that Córdova would maintain or increase the diversity of the school.

The graduation rate for underrepresented minorities, which had lagged that of the overall student population, did equalize by the end of her tenure, Córdova said, and the campus enhanced its reputation for diversity. Even some students who had been accepted at the flagship UC Berkeley campus chose Riverside instead, she said, because they found it “a much more comfortable, welcoming, supportive environment.”

While at Riverside, Córdova also took the initial steps toward establishing the UC Riverside School of Medicine, another of her proudest accomplishments. In 2007, she became the 11th president of Purdue University, serving a five-year term until reaching the mandatory retirement age (65) for university administrators. Her last official day as president was 15 July, and she remains on the faculty.

In January, Córdova also had become chair of the Board of Regents for the Smithsonian Institution, a post that will keep her involved with issues of art, culture, history and science.

“I’ve always enjoyed the choices I made,” Córdova said. She admitted there are times when she considers what might have been had she remained a research scientist. She spoke a bit wistfully about seeing dramatic images of the universe recently in an exhibit at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium based on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

“The features were so interesting to examine,” Córdova said. “It just made me wonder—if I’d stayed in science, I could be exploring that.” But she has no regrets, and she encouraged the leadership trainees to be open to change, to be willing to take on committee work and other networking opportunities that can enhance their careers, and— above all—to remain true to their own values and expectations.

“You have to be careful,” Córdova said. “Being young is very dangerous, because you really do listen to others who give you a lot of advice about what their expectations are of you. If their expectations aren’t very high, you might end up along a pathway that is pretty narrow and conventional.”

As a girl, Córdova said, she was raised to feel that everybody should love her. In the back-and-forth of administrative battles, she said, it readily became apparent that was not always possible, especially during hard economic times when tough decisions had to be made about budget reductions and program cutbacks. She counseled persistence and sticking up for core values. Especially in a leadership position, Córdova said, “respect becomes more important than love.”

Labib Rouhana

The leadership institute drew favorable comments from participants. Labib Rouhana, a postdoctoral researcher in genetics at the University of Illinois, said he was impressed by Córdova’s sense of adventure and willingness to move often in pursuit of her ambitions. Rouhana, whose heritage is Hispanic and Lebanese, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and moved to El Paso, Texas, with his family as a teenager.

The influence of family is strong among Hispanics, said Rouhana, and that can make it difficult to move far from home. But after receiving his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas, El Paso, Rouhana followed his interest in genetics to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for his graduate studies and then on to the University of Illinois to work in the laboratory of Phillip Newmark, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator who uses freshwater flatworms to study regeneration at the molecular level.

Rouhana said his goal is to obtain an academic position that would allow him to do research, train students, and recruit more minorities into science. He praised the leadership institute, saying: “Scientists don’t get much training on human interactions and how to run a group. We are receiving training here that some of our supervisors never got” on conflict resolution, communication, and other skills.

Ann Reyes-Robbins, a Latina who received her law degree from the University of Michigan and a doctorate in social work from the University of Southern California, said she appreciated Córdova’s advice to “be very aware of who you are, what your values are,” even as you solicit advice and comments from peers and colleagues. Reyes-Robbins founded and heads a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the experiences of children caught up in the court system. She continues to teach as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern California and noted Córdova’s decision not to sever her academic ties—she took a leave of absence from Penn State—while she was chief scientist at NASA. “I loved that she kept her options open,” Reyes-Robins said.

Carmelita Lamb

Allyn Kaufmann, whose heritage is German and Quapaw-Pawnee, said the institute “has opened my eyes a little bit.” Kaufmann, a pharmaceutical chemist with Proctor & Gamble Co., acknowledged that he does not “really like change that much.” But he said the institute offered valuable insights on preparing for leadership positions and accepting new opportunities as they arise.

Carmelita Lamb, chair of the department of teacher education at Turtle Mountain Community College on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota, said she admired Córdova’s ability to choose wisely the next steps on her career path.

Lamb is of Hispanic and Lipan Apache heritage, and she praised the leadership institute for “pushing you past your comfort zone.” And she noted presentations by Carrie Billie of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and William Mendoza, head of the White House’s Indian and Native American Education Initiative. “It’s very rare to go to a meeting where Native Americans have a voice,” she said.
Learn more about SACNAS, the society dedicated to fostering the success of Hispanic/Chicano and Native American scientists, and its summer Leadership Program.