France A. Córdova

France A. Córdova
France A. Córdova

France A. Córdova

Doctor of Science
In awarding the 2023 honorary degrees, President Peter Salovey read the following personalized citation.

Prominent astrophysicist and transformative administrator, again and again, you have fostered collaboration and innovation as the director of the National Science Foundation, NASA’s chief scientist, president of Purdue University, and in other leadership roles. Your consummate abilities as galvanizer and champion of scientific progress have expanded the frontiers of possibility and enabled breakthroughs that enrich our lives. Stellar scientist and administrator, the earth and heavens rejoice as we recognize you with this Doctor of Science degree.

The Honorable France A. Córdova—the astrophysicist whose transformative leadership in higher education, government, and public service distinguished her as a science administrator of the highest caliber—was appointed by President Barack Obama to lead the National Science Foundation (NSF), a post she held for a six-year term from 2014 to 2020. As the NSF’s fourteenth director, Córdova created an innovative suite of “big ideas” to pioneer new research opportunities, accelerate discoveries, and build connections among disciplinary areas. A committed educator, she is president emerita of Purdue University and chancellor emerita of the University of California, Riverside. Today she is president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, whose mission is to guide philanthropy in support of scientific breakthroughs with high societal impact.

Córdova, the eldest of twelve children, was born in Paris, where her father was stationed with an international humanitarian agency. The family moved from France to Germany before returning to the United States and settling in California. Córdova’s path to studying science was eclectic: she reveled in trying new things, including writing, literature, drama, and linguistics, in addition to astrophysics. As an English major at Stanford University, she immersed herself in the literature of the early twentieth century. Eager to connect to her heritage in Mexico (her father had been born in Tampico), she spent part of her junior year in Oaxaca working at an archaeological dig, gathering and compiling recipes, and writing a short novel. After graduation, she began to work as a journalist, but scarcely more than a month after her graduation, the Apollo 11 moon landing galvanized her fascination with science. She would go on to earn her Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology and embark on as a career as a research astronomer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, ultimately co-leading an experiment on a space astronomy mission.

“If you follow your own instincts, you will go forward faster. You will find the people who truly love you, and the work you were meant to do.”

A decade after completing her doctorate, Córdova was hired by Pennsylvania State University to chair its department of astronomy and astrophysics. She then became the chief scientist of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, representing NASA to the larger scientific community and infusing the activities of the agency—including the International Space Station, then under construction—with the scientific goals of the broader community. She was the youngest person and first woman to serve in that role, and received NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, in 1996. In a succession of subsequent administrative positions—in the University of California system, at Purdue University, as chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, and in her term at the NSF—Córdova was instrumental in bringing resources, awareness, and strategic leadership to crucial areas of scientific research. Her efforts to prioritize science and foster scientific discovery continue in her current work with the Science Philanthropy Alliance.

In addition to her medal from NASA, Córdova has been honored as a Kilby Laureate (2000), as a recipient of the Caltech Distinguished Alumni Award (2007), and with induction into both the California Hall of Fame and the Stanford University Multicultural Hall of Fame. In 2020 she was awarded Ireland’s Kennedy-Lemass Medal, which recognizes significant contributions by U.S. citizens of Irish heritage. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the National Academy of Sciences; a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Women in Science; and an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy. She has served in five presidential administrations.

Aside from exploring the cosmos, Córdova enjoys climbing mountains and discovering new ideas, places, and people. A peak in Antarctica, a recreation center at Purdue University, and a cocktail in Las Vegas are named in her honor. She and her husband, science educator Christian Foster, are proud parents and grandparents.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Voss