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Profiles in Versatility

Interview with France A. Córdova, new Director of NSF

By Alaina G. Levine

France A. Cordova

France A. Córdova

On 31 March 2014, Dr. France A. Córdova was sworn in as Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). She is an astrophysicist by training with a doctorate in the subject from Caltech, although she started her educational career as an English major at Stanford. Córdova has served in a variety of administrative and leadership positions in higher education and government, including Chief Scientist of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Vice Chancellor for research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, and President of Purdue University. She also worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory as deputy group leader in the Earth and space sciences division and a staff scientist. Here she discusses her ambitions for her new post, her keen interest in everything relating to science, and why sometimes being obtuse is important for success.

AGL: What was it about physics that attracted you in the first place?

FC: My first real encounter with physics was in the 7th grade and we were doing science fair projects. I saw the Bohr model of the hydrogen atom in an encyclopedia and I was smitten. I just couldn’t believe that scientists could infer something so beautiful, so strange from observations and data. And I was convinced at that moment that I had to be a nuclear physicist. But unfortunately my middle school and high school career didn’t lead me in that direction, because I had no role models or mentors in science and there were also a range of things that I really did enjoy, including literature and poetry and writing. So when I went off to college, I majored in English Literature and it wasn’t until after I graduated and was doing a project back east that I saw a television special on neutron stars which had recently been discovered. An MIT scientist was one of the featured explainers. And the very next day (I was living in Cambridge), I went down to MIT and asked for a job at the Center for Space Research [now the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research] and they hired me and that was my entry into science, so it was a very unusual pathway.

AGL: I love your boldness. You set a good standard and role model for many people.

FC: Well it’s either boldness or obtuseness. [Laughs]

AGL: You stayed in physics for a little bit and then you moved into service, management in academia and in government. You’re back in government now. What is it about government and more broadly service that really attracts you?

FC: I was fortunate to be at Los Alamos National Laboratory on the permanent staff for a decade, and then was recruited to Penn State to head their department of astronomy and astrophysics. The head of NASA asked me to interview for the [NASA] Chief Scientist position, and I did, and he asked me to join NASA, temporarily leaving Penn State to do that. That was my first policy/governmental position and I just found that I really enjoyed it. I loved collaborating with the other agencies, being a part and [taking] a leadership role in the national science and technology council on their subcommittee on science. Penn State had given me a leave for 3 years — and [when] I was due to go back, I was offered positions in administrative science leadership and I accepted one at UC Santa Barbara, which was Vice Chancellor for Research. I loved that position because I was close to science and scientists, but I was also able to further a research agenda and move the needle forward especially in interdisciplinary research, and that really got me interested in and comfortable in the world of administration. And from there it was on to be a chancellor of a university, then a president of another university. I saw the potential for impact in those positions, while still always being close to the people who were creating new knowledge. I just think the intersection of those two is one that energized me.

AGL: Was there anything particularly in your physics background and more broadly in your scientific background that you felt aided you and best prepared you for this career?

FC: I think the characteristic of being curious and attracted to difficult problems is just something that marks me as an individual. It’s part of my make-up, from the time I wanted to be Nancy Drew (when I was in grade school) because I loved mysteries and trying to figure out and solve things. I just like going headlong into a challenge. When I go river rafting I like going over the big [rapids]. I like things that look difficult and intractable to solve — they challenge me because they are more interesting to figure out a solution, [or] a new kind of approach. So I think that’s definitely a characteristic of a scientist, being attracted by what you don’t know and what’s a challenge and I find it translates into the world of administration and public policy.

AGL: Were there any skills that you gained as a physicist that you found hindering?

FC: I think that the thing that resonates with me is something that Alan Alda reminded us of [recently]. I attended a meeting [where] Alda led a panel on public communication of science, which is something I’m very, very interested in. And he reminded us of a book by Heath and Heath that talks about the curse of too much knowledge. The message there is when you are a scientist or any academic, sometimes you know so much and your vocabulary is so well defined, it’s almost like a foreign language to others and it can be very abstract and at a different level than [at] what people are comfortable listening to and understanding from. So his point was that communications requires understanding of the audience, speaking with them plainly and using metaphors they can identify with. I would think that [something] to be mindful of when you’re a scientist is that you may know so much you feel like cramming it all in [to your presentations][laughs] and showing how much you know, instead of really focusing on the communication and what’s important for your audience.

AGL: Can you share with me a career highlight or accomplishment that you’re especially proud of (so far)?

FC: There are just a few. When I was at UC Riverside as Chancellor I laid the foundation for a new medical school for an area of California that was really underserved, of 4 million people. A new medical school hadn’t been built west of the Mississippi in over 40 years. So that was a big undertaking and we got it done, and I was the one who kind of pioneered that and laid the foundation of the approval of the university regents and most importantly with the medical school deans of the five prominent medical schools that UC already has. So I'm very proud of that. And I am not a medical person but sensing the need of the community and then finding out all the people who would be supportive and how to go about it was real public policy adventure, getting state legislature to approve the funding for it and so forth. And then the other thing at UC Riverside was we increased the success metrics for minority students of which there are many, many: About 30% were Hispanic students and 70% over all were students of what were then minority populations. It was very important for a research institution to demonstrate that students who had more disadvantaged backgrounds could graduate at the same rate as the rest of the student population. And then I translated that when I went to Purdue in increase the student success metrics overall. Focusing on student success was a very big deal at Purdue, and increasing the research budget by fostering research and all its many aspects and how it was presented to potential funding sources. So those are some of the highlights that I am proud of.

AGL: So thinking forward, what are some of your umbrella goals for NSF? [And related,] you obviously wanted this job for a reason. How can you impact NSF?

FC: First of all, they’re doing fabulous things here and I want to do no harm to those things [laughs], and I really want to encourage the great science and engineering that NSF is doing. [NSF] is involved in so many core programs and interdisciplinary programs [as well as] programs that work with other agencies, from the Brain Initiative to advanced manufacturing [to] all the wonderful facilities we have [in] astrophysics and physics like LIGO and CERN and the many observatories both in this country and abroad. I want to make sure that those continue to get fostered in all their radiant potential. But why me? I bring a different background to this position. I am very, very interested in how we can broaden our efforts in preparing the next generation for careers in STEM fields, and so I’m focused on that.  We have terrific pocket efforts all around the country, [but] they don’t always talk to each other in a systemic and scalable way, so I think we’re going to be doing a lot more focusing on how we can take that effort to the next level. There are huge populations of [underrepresented] people that we are not tapping for STEM careers. We’re just not reaching them, so I think we can do much better there, and that was one of my reasons for taking the job. And another goal is to increase public communication about the value of investments in fundamental science and engineering, which clearly has kept the US ahead in innovation and discovery. I think you’ll see more effort in both formal and informal venues that NSF will be looking at to engage the public to help improve the understanding of the value of basic research and its impact how it affects our daily lives why what we do is worthy of investment. If we’re going to convince all our stakeholders who have the potential of increasing our budget, whether it’s Congress, foundations, or industry, that this is worthwhile and we have a real plan to do this, then we have to be more creative about how we do outreach for partnerships and moving this needle forward.

AGL: Regarding the research areas that NSF supports, what specific areas of research do you think are going to be the most promising, let’s say in the next 5 to 10 years. What are you excited about?

FC: There’s just so much. One other thing that characterizes me is that I am hopefully interested in everything. It’s just I’m exceptionally interested in the last thing that walked into my office [laughs]. So that’s a good thing whether its brain research or the intersection of nanoscience and neuroscience or ground-based astronomy and its link with all the space-based efforts we’re doing. I come out of the NASA community [so] I’m extremely interested in everything we find out about the cosmos and all the unique telescopes that we have already built and are doing incredible new observations, and the ones we are involved in that are just getting started. A geoscientist will come in to my office and talk about their research vessel program, and I get excited about seas. There’s Antarctica and the Arctic and all the polar programs we have. That’s unique, that NSF has the charge of running the polar science facilities for the country and has the leadership position in really the entire world. Basically what NSF does is it supports all fields of science and engineering — that’s our real strength. Unfortunately it’s not all the budget we need [laughs]. So a clearly a big part of my job is to think creatively about how we can expand our budget so that we can attack all this wonderful opportunity in the very best way and really realize the full potential of all the creative people we have who want to participate in this effort.

AGL: What would your argument be for not cutting social science?

FC: I could talk with you for a couple of hours about that, because we really lined up so many incredible examples of where the social sciences is a field itself that is worthy of study and understanding but also how it connects with all the other disciplines we do around here. My view is that every grand challenge that our country or our world faces has to have social scientists working right along with physical scientists in order to even begin to approach tractable solutions. And there’s no person I’ve met and industry in any sector that doesn’t talk about the importance of social scientists, working together with the [other] scientists and engineers, in approaching good solutions to the particular technical challenge they face. So I think that there’s actually a growing appreciation for how important social sciences is in connecting with the technical and innovation challenges that we have.

AGL:  What can physicists look forward to at NSF under your leadership?

FC: Many domains of physics rely on big facilities. So we clearly want to be in the forefront of looking at where the technology is taking us in opening new windows on the universe. We also want to be very concerned about individual physicists/scientists. There’s always the scientist working in their basement who discovers Bose-Einstein condensates. There’s enormous range of ways in which NSF can support the progress of science and discoveries that can then be translated into uses that improve the quality of life. So we want to be sensitive to all that and I hope that we will continue to be. A lot of that is going to rely on the great advice that we can get from scientists and physicists and all the many organization and groups that they have. I love hearing from them. I love going to their meetings and hearing about what their concerns are. And things like decadal surveys which could not be more important in giving us perspectives from the community on what are the priorities, where are the discoveries taking us and as a result, where should the investments be. If there’s a message I would ask physicists to help us with, it is to do their part to communicate to the public about the excitement and impact that science and scientists have on the nation and the world. I hope they’ll be part of what our aim is, which is affecting the next generation of scientists and engineers, and not just the ones that enroll in their classes but all the ones that are somewhere else on campus…like me, as an English major, who could potentially be the next director of NSF. How can they reach out to that potential scientist or engineer and communicate how wonderful their disciplines are and that it is an opportunity to fulfill our curiosity about how nature works and opportunities to be the first person to see something in nature that nobody’s ever seen before? I want them all to be a part of communicating what drove them to be physicists and I hope we can work together on that.

AGL: You are such a successful woman in science. Do you have any thoughts for women who are in scientific areas that are underpopulated by women, such as physics? Is there some advice you would offer that you’ve learned yourself being able to excel as a scientist?

FC: That’s a huge question. A couple of things come to mind. One is that you have to be a little bit obtuse and single-minded to help you ignore barriers. It helps not to see them sometimes. There are always bumps in the road for men and women and people of every background. Part of it is not to pay attention to all the potential stuff that can bother you, because there’s always a lot of that out there, and the other thing is to try to put yourself in a situation that is supportive. I can’t thank the institutions [where I was enough], like for example Caltech, my graduate school, that just said “ok so we got an English major here, how do we help her?” and they helped me design a program to fill in my math background. And as long as I was willing to work hard and show that I was very enthusiastic about it they were going to reciprocate and help me to be a success. If you’re not in an environment that is supportive, that you find one that is, because they are definitely, definitely out there. I loved being at Los Alamos because they completely supported me and I loved marrying the person I married because he was enormously supportive [laughs]. I feel that you have choices. And your choice should be you don’t choose to make things worse for yourself: try to choose pathways that are more helpful because they exist all around you and identifying them and getting on them is really key. I just have found huge, huge support, and I am absolutely positive that there are people out there who are not supportive, but I haven’t heard them [laughs]. I just ignore them.

Alaina G. Levine is the author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2014) and President of Quantum Success Solutions, a science career and professional development consulting enterprise. She can be contacted through www.alainalevine.com, or followed on twitter @AlainaGLevine.

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