City News Service

Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, has been named the new director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and vice president of Caltech — becoming the JPL’s first woman director, it was announced Thursday.

Leshin, a geochemist and space scientist, succeeds Michael Watkins, who stepped down in August. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Larry D. James has been serving as JPL interim director.

JPL is a federally funded research and development center managed by Caltech for NASA.

Leshin, who was named WPI’s first woman president in 2014, will assume her new positions on May 16, the JPL and Caltech said Thursday in announcing the appointment.

Raised in Arizona, Leshin earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Arizona State University, and received her master’s and doctoral degrees in geochemistry from Caltech.

“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 Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum.

“We are so pleased to be able to welcome Laurie back to campus and to JPL.”

Leshin’s career has spanned both academia and senior positions at NASA, and included two White House appointments.

In 2005, she became director of science and exploration at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and in 2008, she was named Goddard’s deputy director for science and technology. In 2010, she became deputy associate administrator of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters, where her work, in part, involved the commercial capabilities of space flight.

Leshin left NASA in 2011 to join Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State as dean of the School of Science.

In 2004, Leshin served on President George W. Bush’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. In 2013, President Barack Obama appointed her to the advisory board of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

Throughout, Leshin has also continued her scientific work, with a focus on examining the record of water on objects in the solar system.

“I am both thrilled and humbled to be appointed the director of JPL,” Leshin said.

“In many ways, this feels like a homecoming. 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.”

She also said she was “especially honored to be the first woman to hold the title of director of JPL.”

“I kfrom 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,” she said. “We will dare mighty things, together.”

Watkins, the former director, announced in August he was stepping down to resume his academic and research career in aerospace and geophysics at Caltech.

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