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Celebrating Women in STEM: Dr. France A. Córdova

Dr. France A. Córdova has one of the most successful careers in science today.

Born on August 5, 1947 in Paris, Córdova was the oldest of the 12 children of Frederick Córdova, a Mexican-American West Point graduate, and his Irish-American wife, Joan McGuinness.

After moving around Europe for her father’s position with the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, Córdova’s family finally returned to the U.S. in 1953, settling in West Covina, CA.

Córdova’s first attempt to break into the male-dominated sciences was rough. Her Catholic high school was strictly against women in STEM careers, and she had to petition the school to allow her and four other girls into the boys-only Physics class.

After high school, Córdova majored in English at Stanford. Her junior year, she worked on an anthropology project in Oaxaca, Mexico. She wrote a novel about her experience entitled The Women of Santo Domingo, which started her career as a writer.

However, the year she graduated cum laude from Stanford (1969), an incredible journey changed the course of her life: man’s first trip to the surface of the Moon. A public television documentary about neutron stars further peaked her curiosity. She decided to be an Astrophysicist.

Córdova earned her Ph.D. in Physics at Caltech in 1979; one of two women in her class of 18.

While working on her dissertation, she famously asked NASA to reposition their High Energy Astronomical Observatory (HEAO-1) satellite to look at a possible binary star system outburst. If this gamble failed, Córdova would have cost NASA a lot of money.

Luckily, the signal was observed: a huge spike in X-ray emission resulting from the collapse of the binary system.

In Nautilus’ Spark of Science series in 2016, Córdova said, “In the end, you have to believe a prediction enough to go after it. Then just see if it’s there or not. It might be an amazing new discovery, and you’re the first person to see it.”

After school, Córdova accepted a position at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where she met her husband and had two children. She was promoted to deputy group leader of the Earth and Space Sciences Division in 1988.

The next year, she became head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State. In 1993, Córdova become the youngest person and first woman to serve as NASA Chief Scientist.

(Source: Rochester Institute of Technology)
(Source: Rochester Institute of Technology)

She went on to work as a professor and Vice Chancellor for Research at UC Santa Barbara (1996 – 2002), the Chancellor of UC Riverside (2002 – 2007), and the first female and first minority President of Purdue (2007 – 2012).

Córdova was appointed to the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents in 2009, and became the Chair in 2012. In 2014, she was appointed the 14th Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) by President Obama; she’s the first Latina to hold the position.

Under her direction, the $7.2-billion agency has funded some of the most exciting projects of our time, including the Nobel Prize winning LIGO project, which detected gravitational waves for the first time ever in 2015.

Today, Córdova continues to serve as the Director of the NSF. She has published more than 150 scientific papers, has received multiple awards for her work (including NASA’s highest honor: the Distinguished Service Medal), and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Women in Science.

Córdova is an advocate for diversity in STEM fields, and said in an interview for Techer, the Caltech Alumni Association’s magazine, that the annual report on diversity by the NSF shows progress, but there’s still work to do.

“Our own experiences inform the questions that drive scientific discovery. We are richer for the diversity of our culture, knowledge, and viewpoints,” said Córdova.

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Monday in the Women’s Center, 2 – 3 pm.

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