"Our trustees interviewed several outstanding candidates who would have been excellent presidents, but France Cordova is the right person at the right time for Purdue," said J. Timothy McGinley, chairman of Purdue's board of trustees. The seven-month search for a new president ended with a unanimous vote to hire Ms. Cordova.
When news spread at Riverside that Purdue was courting Ms. Cordova, students at the university picketed, asking her to stay. Faculty members also started a campaign of e-mails and telephone calls.
As a college professor, Ms. Cordova said she learned first hand what kind of effect the faculty can have on its students.
"I had students who would tell me that I changed their career path," Ms. Cordova says. "These young women who became physicists came in not knowing what they should do. But after hearing me talk with passion about my research area, they became interested in that."
Those experiences have convinced Ms. Cordova that "when students see somebody who looks like them and can share the same kinds of experiences and can encourage them, it really does make a difference."
Writer, Scientist, Leader
The oldest of 12 children, Ms. Cordova was born in Paris, France, to a Mexican father and an Irish-American mother. The West Covina, California, native graduated cum laude with a degree in English from Stanford.
Although she dreamed at an early age of being a physicist, her parents and teachers encouraged her to pursue writing.
"I was very influenced when I was in grade school and high school by what kind of career my parents thought I should go into, and also my teachers," she says.
After graduating college, Ms. Cordova moved to New York, where she landed a job writing for a magazine. She briefly worked as a news writer and editor for the Los Angeles Times News Service and authored a work of fiction, "The Women of Santo Domingo," based on her anthropological fieldwork in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Her love of science drew her back after watching a public television special about neutron stars. The next morning she went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and asked for a job at the Center for Space Research. She got the position and was later admitted to graduate school. In 1979, Ms. Cordova earned a doctorate in physics from the California Institute for Technology, or Caltech, and spent the next 10 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a member of the Space Astronomy and Astrophysics Group.
She served as chief scientist at NASA, where she was the youngest and first woman to hold that position. In 1999, Ms. Cordova led one of the American teams that helped build the European Space Agency's X-Ray Multi-Mirror satellite. The satellite was designed to provide high quality X-ray spectra from black holes to very hot objects created when the universe was very young. She has also written more than 100 scientific papers.
Among her other accomplishments, Ms. Cordova is the winner of NASA's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, and was recognized as a 2000 Kilby Laureate for "contributions to society through science, technology, innovation, invention, and education."
During her tenure at NASA, Ms. Cordova was on leave as a professor and head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University. She would later serve as vice-chancellor at UC Santa Barbara for six years, the job she held before starting at UC Riverside in 2002.
As Ms. Cordova has demonstrated, the whole idea of going to college is not just about "doggedly pursuing one career path," but more about being exposed to many opportunities and perspectives.
"Sometimes that dialogue that's in the classroom or outside of the classroom that you have – because you have a more diverse environment – can really enrich your perspective and lead you on a wholly different track."
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