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For the first time in its 85-year history, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a female director.
Geochemist and space scientist Laurie Leshin will serve as the director for JPL as well as the vice president of the California Institute of Technology, both located in Pasadena. Faculty and students from Caltech founded JPL in 1936 and have managed the laboratory on behalf of NASA since 1958.
It’s a bit of a homecoming for Leshin, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in geochemistry from Caltech and served as a member of the Curiosity rover science team that analyzed data to find evidence of water on the surface of Mars.
Leshin has also spent more than two decades supporting and planning the upcoming Mars Sample Return missions, which will return Martian samples collected by the Perseverance rover to Earth by the 2030s. All of these Mars exploration missions are managed by JPL.
As a scientist, Leshin has focused on understanding where and when water has been present throughout our solar system. Leshin also has an impressive record of serving in academia, holding senior positions at NASA and two White House appointments.
Leshin has been the president of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one of the oldest private STEM universities in the United States, since 2014 and served as the institute’s first female president in its 150-year history. She will succeed Michael Watkins, the previous director of JPL who stepped down to resume his academic and research career at Caltech in August.
“NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a storied history of defying what was once thought impossible in the field of space exploration. In this new era of groundbreaking discoveries and constant innovation, it is clear that 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 in a statement.
“Under Dr. Leshin, the technology invented at JPL will continue to allow humans to explore the places in our universe that we cannot yet reach and spark the imaginations of future mathematicians, engineers, and pioneers in classrooms across America.”
Previously, Leshin served as the director of science and exploration at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in 2005, before being promoted to deputy director for science and technology there in 2008. In that role, Leshin oversaw more than 50 Earth and space projects.
Leshin became the deputy associate administrator of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington in 2010. There, she oversaw efforts laying the groundwork for future human spaceflight programs. These capabilities are now part of commercial crew, which delivers astronauts to the International Space Station, and the Artemis program, which seeks to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon in 2025.
“I am both thrilled and humbled to be appointed the director of JPL,” Leshin said in a statement.
“Some of the most impactful experiences of my career have taken place on the Caltech campus and at JPL – lessons learned and goals achieved that have shaped me as a leader and a space scientist. The opportunity to return to working closely with so many colleagues across Caltech – at the Lab and on campus – and at NASA is a dream come true.”
During her time as president at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Leshin focused on addressing gender disparity in STEM, developed new academic spaces and expanded research. The STEM institute now has the highest percentage of female undergraduate students.
She served on President George W. Bush’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy in 2004, and President Barack Obama appointed her to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum advisory board in 2013.
Leshin has received NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal and Distinguished Public Service Medal as well as Caltech’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
“Laurie Leshin stood out in an exhaustive international search because of her profound commitment to people, her strategic approach to scientific and technological opportunities, her deep appreciation of NASA’s leadership in space exploration and Earth science, her mastery of complex organizations, and her ability to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers,” said Thomas F. Rosenbaum, president of Caltech and the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics, in a statement. “We are so pleased to be able to welcome Laurie back to campus and to JPL.”
Leshin also received the Meteoritical Society’s Nier Prize, granted for outstanding research in planetary science or the study of meteors and meteorites. She even has an asteroid named after her, asteroid 4922 Leshin, by the International Astronomical Union.
She will begin her new position in May.
“We have enormous opportunities ahead to leverage JPL’s global leadership in robotic space exploration to answer awe-inspiring scientific questions and improve life here on Earth,” Leshin said.
“I look forward to my work with Caltech and NASA to ensure that JPL continues to drive innovation across the global space ecosystem,” she said.
“I am especially honored to be the first woman to hold the title of director of JPL. I know from personal experience that diverse teams make greater impact, and I will work every day to ensure that JPL is a place where all belong and thrive. We will dare mighty things, together.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated a milestone of Leshin's when she became vice president of Caltech. The sentence has been removed.