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NASA veteran to become JPL's first woman director

LA Times logo LA Times 1/28/2022 Hayley Smith

A Caltech alumna and NASA veteran will become the new director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

Laurie Leshin, the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, will assume the role of director in May, officials announced Thursday. She will succeed Michael Watkins, who retired in August, and Lt. Gen. Larry James, who currently serves at the interim director.

Leshin will be JPL's first woman director. She will also become a vice president of Caltech, which manages the lab for NASA.

Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum said Leshin was selected for her track record leading complex organizations, her strategic thinking, her commitment to people and "her ability to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers."

Leshin said innovation, technology and exploration will be among her top priorities. These include the effort to collect samples of Martian soil and return them to Earth to look for evidence of past life on the red planet, as well as a mission to Jupiter's icy moon Europa to see whether it is suitable for life.

The lab will also continue with its Earth-centric missions intended to understand and mitigate the effects of climate change.

"L.A. is a land of inspiration, and JPL's missions inspire people every day," she said in an interview Friday, noting that Southern California is a cradle of space exploration, rocketry and the aerospace industry. "California is the place to be if you want to be a space explorer — especially Southern California."

This won't be her first stint with NASA. She previously held two senior positions at the space agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where she worked on more than 50 projects. She also spent time at NASA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., where her portfolio included human spaceflight and finding ways to send astronauts deeper into the solar system.

Leshin said the entirety of her career helped prepare her to lead JPL, including her experience with NASA missions that didn't succeed, such as the Mars Polar Lander mission in 1999. Then as a cosmochemist at Arizona State University, she was poised to search for water and ice with a stationary precursor to today's Mars rovers, but the lander never made contact and most likely crashed upon arrival.

"All of those things have taught me great lessons," she said.

Leshin has deep ties to the area, having earned her master's and doctoral degrees in geochemistry from Caltech and then completing a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA.

After working at ASU and NASA, she joined Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., as dean of the school of science in 2011, then became president at WPI in 2014. She also held two White House appointments.

"Dr. Laurie Leshin has a track record of scholarship and leadership needed to serve as director of JPL and cement the center’s status as a global leader in the 21st century,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

For Leshin, the return to JPL — and to Southern California — feels like a homecoming.

A self-described "Rose Parade nerd," she said she and her husband, astrophysicist Jon Morse, will likely land in Pasadena with their Corgi and tabby cat. An Arizona native, she said she looks forward to trading Massachusetts snow for views of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Being the first woman to lead the lab "just makes the honor even greater," she said, noting that she received "many heartfelt reactions" from women at JPL after the announcement was made. Some even made her a congratulatory Spotify playlist featuring songs such as Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)."

"Representation matters," Leshin said. "I'm going to do my best to make JPL a place where everyone can thrive. We need all the brains to solve the really hard challenges of space exploration and get to a place where everyone can contribute to that bold mission."

About 31% of JPL's employees are women, according to their 2020 annual report.

Leshin listed Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, as both a friend and hero, and said she keeps a LEGO version of Ride on her desk.

She also recalled attending meetings of the National Organization for Women with her mother in the 1970s. At the time, the group was working to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

"There were all these women standing on their chairs and making a lot of noise about expanding the role of women in leadership and in society," Leshin said. "At the time, I was too small to understand why those women were doing that. But they were doing that so that I could do this. And that connection to the shoulders I stand on is one that I take very seriously."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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