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An Unorthodox Interview at Cheesecake Factory with Science Luminary France Córdova

France Cordova, NAS, NSF
Photo Credit: NSF/Stephen Voss

Crayons clattered onto the table next to the always intimidating Cheesecake Factory menus. My wife and I smiled at the children as their parents got them settled into their seats and engrossed in their coloring books. Then their mother turned her attention to me, ready to discuss her research on gamma rays and my hopes for the future of NASA.

It wasn’t a typical job interview, but France Córdova wasn’t a typical candidate.

France was so named because she was born in Paris, France, the child of an Irish-American mother and a Mexican-American father who worked for the US State Department. She was the oldest of twelve children, which helped develop her senses of responsibility, leadership, and organization.

She grew up in West Covina, California and attended a traditional Catholic high school that didn’t just fail to encourage girls who were interested in STEM; it actively prevented them from pursuing it. She had to team up a few of her classmates to convince the school to allow them to take a physics class. Her determination to succeed resulted in her becoming the first woman from her high school to be accepted into Stanford University.

After graduating Stanford with an English degree, France was debating what career to pursue when she watched the Apollo 11 moon landing on TV. Like many of us, she was inspired by this revolution in human accomplishment, but in her case it led to a major shift of her professional ambitions and a lifelong pursuit of scientific exploration. After working in a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she returned to California and earned a PhD in physics from the California Institute of Technology.

She served as a Deputy Group Leader at the Space Astronomy and Astrophysics Group at the Los Alamos National Laboratory before transitioning to lead the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University, which is where she was working when the two of us first crossed paths.

I had been in my new role as NASA Administration for a little over a year, and now that I felt settled into it, I was setting out to address two major issues that I had identified within the organization.

The first was that biology had been deemphasized after the Viking mission to detect life on Mars returned results that were indeterminate to negative.

Instead of making adjustments for future missions, NASA physicists took control and shifted focus to searching for signs of life through telescopes and making comparisons to findings on Earth. But how could missions searching for life be successful if NASA didn’t engage with the biologists who understood what to look for?

The other problem was that NASA had become too government-focused and was no longer connecting with the average American.

It needed to re-learn how to speak to the American public; after all, those were its customers, the ones who provided its funding. I had been leading this charge, but others were reluctant to get involved, preferring to focus on their technical and managerial work. I needed someone who would truly be my teammate in this endeavor.

To resolve these issues, I decided to hire a Chief Scientist, a position which NASA did not have at the time. This person would need to be extremely creative and imaginative in order to take NASA in a new direction. They would need a large intellectual bandwidth and high level of curiosity so that they wouldn’t be overly influenced by our previous successes and failures (or our current biases). They would need to be relatable so that they could help explain concepts and principles to the average American. And they would need a great deal of courage and an authoritative personality since technically they would not have direct authority over the workforce, which was made up of many strong personalities who in some cases had formed cliques after years of working together (and some even serving together in the military before that).

It would be one of the most important appointments I would make, so I reached out to America’s leading scientists and shared the specific criteria for the position. Dr. Ed Freeman, a friend and who at the time was the Director of Scripps Institute of Oceanography (and had previously been head of the National Science Foundation, which ties in later), told me there was one person who fit what I was looking for: France Córdova.

She wasn’t a big name at the time, but the more Dr. Freeman shared about her background, the more certain I became of his endorsement. So I contacted her and invited her to an interview. She was interested but somewhat cautious, and also indicated she was extremely busy. She asked if it would be possible to interview on a Saturday, which I agreed to. She then asked if she could bring her husband and introduce him to me. He was a teacher, and she wouldn’t take the NASA job unless I could assist with securing him a teaching position in the Washington DC area where NASA Headquarters was located. I agreed to this also. Finally, she informed me that her three-year-old and five-year old would need to come with them to the meeting as well. It was the first time I had received such a request, but given that there was no other option to meet with her, I agreed.

This was how I found myself at the Cheesecake Factory in Bethesda discussing the future of space travel while the adults and children next to us enjoyed their fried appetizers and elaborate cheeseburgers. It was without a doubt the most unusual job interview I’d ever conducted, but I knew almost immediately that France was the right person for the job. When she was determined to accomplish something you could see it in her eyes, and I had a feeling she would step right into the role and make a huge impact.

Thankfully she accepted the position, and although she only stayed at NASA for three years, she helped create a foundation that lasted well beyond that. During her time there, she helped me lay out plans for the Mars program as well as deep solar system exploration programs. She and I collaborated on the creation of many telescopes. She conducted scientific quality checks on various labs. She reached out to less financially successful countries and engaged them in the NASA program, which improved American diplomacy.

But more important than any of this, she helped me change the culture of NASA, which had been very monolithic in terms of who had been running things. She was the first of many women who came into the organization around this time, and she helped introduce different scientific thoughts and approaches. I made it clear to everyone how strongly I supported her, but she never asked me to intervene, even when dealing with very strong and stubborn personalities. She was determined in her role, and her perseverance paid off. It’s no wonder that she became a role model for many young women pursuing STEM fields.

France also began joining me at the town hall meetings I was conducting across the country (particularly in areas where NASA was not already represented) to educate the public on how our mission related to their lives and those of their family. Not only did we help inspire more young people to pursue STEM careers but through their new understanding the American public better understood and was more supportive of NASA’s mission. I noticed a spike in how well these town halls went once France was part of the team. She really understood what the average Americans wanted and was able to work with me to figure out how to explain things to them in a way that resonated. She realized that in order for people to feel inspired they needed to have an expectation that what we were doing was going to have some sort of positive effect on their lives, otherwise the money we were spending didn’t feel worth it to them.

France took a deep interest in this role of unofficial science ambassador for NASA to America and the rest of the world. She excelled at it not only when interacting with the general public but also when conveying our goals and accomplishments to government officials. During her time with NASA, we went from getting bills related to our budget and procedures passed in Congress from only a one vote margin to getting them passed by a two to one margin.

Part of the reason for this was thanks to a strategic plan that she was instrumental in helping me create. It allowed NASA to become more scientific in its thinking, and at the same time provided an opportunity for us to share the goals of the organization with the public.

One component of the plan was a list of six essential questions, each of which had multiple parts.

The Six Questions:

1: How did the universe, galaxies, stars, and planets form and evolve, and what is their destiny? How can our exploration of the universe and our solar system revolutionize our understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology?

2: Does life in any form, however simple or complex, carbon-based or other, exist elsewhere than on Earth? Are there Earth-like planets beyond our solar system?

3: How can we utilize the latest findings about the Sun, Earth, and other planetary bodies to develop accurate, predictive environmental, weather, climate, natural disaster, and natural resource models to help ensure sustainable development and improve the quality of life on Earth?

4: What is the fundamental role of gravity and cosmic radiation in vital biological, physical, and chemical systems in space, on other planetary bodies, and on Earth, and how do we apply this fundamental knowledge to foster a permanent human presence in space and to improve life on Earth?

5: How can we enable revolutionary technological advances to provide air and space travel for anyone, anytime, anywhere, more safely, more affordably, and with less impact on the environment, and improve business opportunities and global security?

6: What cutting-edge technologies, processes, techniques, and engineering capabilities must we develop to enable our research agenda in the most productive, safe, economical, and timely manner? How can we most effectively transfer knowledge from our research and discoveries to benefit both commercial ventures and the quality of human life?

We worked together with the support of the NASA leadership team to formulate these questions, taking care to make sure they could be understood by people of all backgrounds. France was a great partner to work with, both on these projects and in general. I enjoy working on a team, but I prefer to rely on only a few people. France became one of them. She was trustworthy, and I felt comfortable communicating with her. She was someone I could intellectually wrestle with, so she would talk me through my concerns and help me break down intellectual roadblocks.

Although her time with NASA was relatively short, her accomplishments rightfully earned her its highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal. France returned to academia, eventually becoming the first Latina chancellor of University of California, Riverside. In 2007, she became the first female president of Purdue University, and I had the honor of speaking at her induction ceremony, which was honestly one of the highlights of my career. Two years later President Obama appointed her to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, and five years after that he nominated her to become the first female head of the National Science Foundation, a nomination I was extremely proud to support.

France has remained a close colleague, dear friend and in addition to witnessing her professional accomplishments, I’ve also been able to watch as her children who once colored next to us during her interview grew up to be successful contributing members of American society and have children of their own. None of us could have known on that day how influential France would become in the field of science or how large her impact on NASA would be.

But it does prove a lesson that I’ve learned over and over throughout my career: sometimes in order to accomplish great things it helps to be a little unorthodox.

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