Dr. France A. Córdova is an internationally recognized astrophysicist and the 14th director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), a position to which she was nominated in 2013 by President Barack Obama. Dr. Córdova also is president emerita of Purdue University. Previously, she served as NASA’s chief scientist, becoming the youngest person and first woman to serve in that position. Prior to joining NASA, she was on the faculty of the Pennsylvania State University where she headed the department of astronomy and astrophysics. Dr. Córdova was also deputy group leader in the Earth and Space Sciences division at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University and her Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology.

While there is more gender diversity than ever in the science and engineering fields, do you think that women are still under-represented?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised over the course of my lifetime that there are more and more women in science and engineering. But at Stanford, where I was an undergrad, there were almost no women in the physical sciences and engineering fields. Now there are many. Women in minorities still remain under-represented relative to their proportion in the US population. I do think that is changing as people become more aware of what you can do in these careers. NSF has been working hard to mitigate against gender harassment in the fields and by harassment, we mean the gentle put-down that questions if a woman is good enough to be in that field. We’re increasing the awareness about science and engineering and the kinds of careers available.

Given some of the stereotypes of what a boy can grow up to be and what a girl can grow up to be, do you think both boys and girls need a clearer definition of what being a scientist or engineer entails?

It’s important for them to see great expositors of science — both women and men. They see somebody like [astrophysicist] Neil deGrasse Tyson, who’s very upbeat, and I think it’s just very important to constantly be putting women who do these things out there to show how excited they are about the field. Seeing somebody with that spark of enthusiasm on television or in front of a classroom is what we need. We need women encouraging other women in whatever way that happens. When I grew up, we had teachers who actively discouraged women, saying they were taking the place of boys in learning science, chemistry, physics, and so on. That’s obviously not helpful. I think it really has to do with encouragement.

How big an influence is a child’s environment growing up or their economic situation?

It doesn’t have to be a disadvantage to grow up in a more economically challenged environment if you have people who are enthusiastic about science and point you in the right direction. There are now so many summer camps and after-school programs as well as citizen science projects and museums that do great work producing shows that inspire. It has to be a challenge that all of us take on, especially all of us who are scientists. Anything can be a spark. At NSF, we have STEM Spark in which people talk about their first STEM spark. We just have to keep lighting the match wherever we go in whatever way we can so we can spark somebody’s imagination.

Who were the role models or mentors that influenced your path to a science career?

My role models were guys. Later on, I met women who were in the field and I thought that was great, although they were very few and far between. And honestly, that’s where it starts — when you’re exposed to something that resonates with you. When I was exposed to the night sky and the universe and to stars and galaxies in the making, I thought, “Wow.” So, it’s the subject itself that has to light your imagination. Once that’s kindled, the next step is not to get discouraged by people who say that field’s not for you. Where I’ve been at different institutions, I’ve actually seen that happen — students trying to sign up for a science or math course being discouraged from it.

I was an English major as an undergraduate and had an anthropology background but I chose a different route. I definitely think that having a very wide background helps you do any job a lot better.

The NSF is the only government agency charged with advancing all fields of science and technological innovation and STEM education. That’s quite a responsibility.

That’s been our charge for 70 years. I don’t think we should be afraid of covering a big territory. We should just go confidently. We should get very good people to help lead the charge and keep funding all those different areas. Our real challenge is to ensure that Congress realizes what a wide territory we need to cover and just how important funding all of it is.

You were the first woman to serve as NASA’s chief scientist. Tell us about that experience.

I worked on getting science onto the International Space Station before it even launched. I worked with The White House on various projects including refurbishing the South Pole station for NSF. That was an all-agency kind of approach and communicating science to the public. We set up the first broad Internet tool so all the agencies could get more science examples out to the public. The Obama Administration was enormously supportive of bringing women in. We had women in science groups from across agencies — the DoE, the DoD, agriculture. We were thrilled that the Administration was fostering women in government. I kind of take it for granted that that’s what should be done.

How is the NSF addressing the challenge of increasing the number of women in the STEM workforce?

From the very beginning of NSF, we’ve funded fellowships for graduate students and postdocs and those have just been tremendously important. We also fund early career scientists and interestingly, we don’t just fund them to do science. We also give them the opportunity to apply if they have childcare needs that must be met so they can attend conferences and so on — it’s a way to help with the home/work balance to make sure their science is preserved.

We don’t want women to be discouraged by what they perceive it takes to be successful. It’s what you have inside of you that gives you the ability to persist in the face of setbacks and in the face of perceived bias. Because if you’re really intrigued and mesmerized by science and engineering and you think that’s where you should be, then it’s for you. As you go through life and you just keep looking at what new pathways are open, you have to take a little bit of risk to see what those paths can offer you.

Celebrating Women in Engineering & Science:

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This article first appeared in the March, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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