France Córdova

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ORAL HISTORIES
France Córdova

Credit: Stephen Voss

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
video conference
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Interview of France Córdova by David Zierler on May 11, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/XXXX

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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews the Honorable France Córdova, former Director of the National Science Foundation. Córdova recounts her childhood in Europe and then Southern California. She discusses her experiences in Catholic school and her decision to study at Stanford as an undergraduate, where she did not focus on science. Córdova explains her initial desire to pursue graduate work in anthropology until a series of events led to her employment at Caltech and ultimately, her dissertation work in astrophysics and data analysis. Córdova discusses her work at Los Alamos and her faculty appointment at Penn State. She describes her tenures as Chancellor at University of California Riverside, NASA administrator, and as President of Purdue, and she explains her main goals and accomplishments in each of these positions. In the latter portion of the interview, Córdova describes her work at Director of the NSF and she provides a detailed overview of science policy and funding during her years serving in the Obama administration.

Transcript

David Zierler:

This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is May 11th, 2020. It is my great pleasure and delight to be here with the honorable Dr. France Córdova. France, thank you so much for being with me today.

France Córdova:

Great. Thank you, David.

Zierler:

Let’s start first with your—this is going to be probably a convoluted answer, but we'll give it a shot anyway—tell me your title and institutional affiliation.

Córdova:

Well, all my titles are former. [laugh] I’m the fourteenth director of the National Science Foundation, and I finished that up six weeks ago. The president emerita of Purdue University. A chancellor emerita of the University of California at Riverside. Yeah, that’s enough.

Zierler:

[laugh] Now, let’s take it right back to the beginning. I feel like we could have just an oral history on your origins, because it’s such a fascinating story. Tell me about your birthplace and your family background and your early childhood.

Córdova:

Sure. So I was born in Paris, France, and that was because my father was—he was a West Point graduate, and as soon as he graduated, the day after he graduated, married my mother, and they—

Zierler:

Where was your father from?

Córdova:

Well, he was born in Mexico, but of an American father born in Texas and a Mexican mother. His father actually went there on assignment because he spoke Spanish, to work in electronics, and met his wife there. And was there for a number of years. So my father was in Mexico until he was eight years old, and then they moved to the States, because his father was a U.S. citizen. Anyway, so he grew up in a few different places, but then mostly Texas. Went back to San Antonio. And then he was about to go off to—he had enlisted in joining the Second World War, and he was on a train to go over from Texas to someplace where they put people on boats or planes and go over to join the war effort. He was going to be disposed to North Africa to fight Rommel’s army. And they stopped the train and called him off the train, and they said that he had been admitted to West Point. Because he had applied through an examination, not through a political appointment. And they said, “Where would you rather go?” [laugh] And so he—

Zierler:

Easy choice.

Córdova:

—chose West Point. Anyway, that’s how he ended up there. And my mother is from New York, born and raised in New York City. And her brother was a West Pointer, and she was going to an all-girls school, so she—just an all-girls private school. So she’d go up on the weekends—she was in high school—to ostensibly see her brother, but really to have a good time and meet people and dance and that sort of thing. And she met my father at a dance, and that was that. So they were engaged, but you can’t get married when you're in West Point, so they got married the day after his graduation. By that time, she was way out of high school.

Zierler:

And what brought them to Paris?

Córdova:

Yes. What brought them to Paris—so my father contracted a very severe illness when he was at West Point in some of his training. In fact, he received the last rites of the Catholic church, because they thought he was going to die. And so he only had a year to go, so they let him graduate, and then he had an honorable discharge. And they wanted to give him a significant job to do. He just couldn't be in the Army as a regular standing military person. So they got him a job with CARE [Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe – heard of CARE packages?], the international humanitarian relief organization founded in 1945—he was in the class of ’46 at West Point, so the war was just over. So he went overseas to work for CARE and he became chief of missions for the operations in Europe at a very young age.

So I was the first child. I was born in Paris, and after one year, we went to Germany, where we lived for several years, and where three of my siblings were born. And his main work was in Yugoslavia, working with President Tito, and he actually received a medal from the president as being a hero of the country. And so I still have his big plaque and his medal and all that. Again, he was just turning 30 years old, and The New York Times wrote him up, a nice story about how he had just helped tremendously in the relief efforts. But he also now had four children, and my mother—my father had always a gift for languages, so he spoke French and German and later Italian and so on. Of course, Spanish, he was raised in a Spanish-speaking household. But my mother did not, and she wanted us to be raised in the States. So with a very senior partner at CARE they left CARE and started their own business with his partner’s money and my father’s youth and energy, and started a business in California. So we all moved to California, and that’s where the rest of the family—we have 12 children in all—were born. So I was six years old when I came to California.

Zierler:

Why did they choose California of all places?

Córdova:

Well, probably because it was just seen as a land of opportunity. I never really talked to him that much about it. But everything was growing and building. When we first moved there, there were all orange groves around our home, and it later just turned into lots of houses. It was really seen as—it was that “Go West, young man” kind of thing, that people just went there to kind of start afresh. And what he wanted to do—and I'm not sure what attracted him to it, but probably his love of languages and his understanding of cultures—he wanted to import stone, especially marble, granite, onyx, that kind of thing, from Italy. And so I don’t know what led him to decide that it was going to be that particular endeavor, but he started a marble company called Carrara Marble Company of America. And the whole idea of building buildings with marble and granite was all very new at the time for California. And it was a big success. And he only did buildings; he didn't do stuff for people’s homes. He used to argue that it was just as much work to build a huge building—you dealt with just as many people—as it was for single family households. So he did things like the L.A. Music Center, and big hotels in Las Vegas, and just a lot of the buildings around L.A., for which he was a subcontractor. Anyway, the whole business is still going on very well with the third generation. His son, my oldest brother, took over, and [-] his son is taking over right now. And so that was a good investment.

Zierler:

Do you have memories of your years in Europe?

Córdova:

Not too many. I remembered, of course, not France but Germany, and speaking a little bit of that language, and my friends. My parents did a lot of those videos, those 16-millimeter videos. So I'm not sure how much I remember is because we saw those videos—or in those days, they weren’t called videos; they were just film—of our friends and playing there, and that sort of thing, or if it was really memories at all. But anyway, [-] not that much.

Zierler:

I want to build this narrative throughout our conversation in terms of the question of who your champions were in terms of you starting to identify as a leader, particularly in your generation where, being a woman, that might not have been the most obvious or easiest path. So even from your earliest years, can you think of when or who might have encouraged you to think of yourself as a future leader?

Córdova:

Well, I think it’s probably the nuns at my grade school. I missed kindergarten, which seems sort of ironic, because I think kinder is obviously a German word, and that’s where it kind of started. But the whole business of transitioning between Europe—and we were six months in New York City with my mother’s parents while my father was getting ready our home in California—so I missed that. So I actually somehow started around the middle or the end of the first grade in Catholic school in Southern California. And it was really the nuns that just saw something in me and would say —things like—[laugh] one phrase I'll never forget from my—we had autograph books. So people wrote things in autograph books. And my second grade teacher, Sister Mary Perpetua wrote, “Surely our Blessed Mother expects great things of you.” And I thought, “Wow!” Because I didn't expect anything of myself; why would somebody say that? But those words always stayed with me, because I often wondered through the years and the decades, what exactly was it that our Blessed Mother expected of me? [laugh]

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

And had I risen to that expectation? [laugh]

Zierler:

What about from your parents? Did you get that mentorship from your parents as well?

Córdova:

Not so much, because they were busy. I was the oldest of 12 children, and they had a lot of other things to worry about, and children coming rather quickly. And my father was always away; not away from the house, but just during the day, and then he’d get home at night and that sort of thing. Very, very involved with trying to make a go of things. And he also—the illness he contracted when he was a cadet stayed with him for a number of years, a good decade. And he actually got the last rites of the Catholic church five times. And so my whole youth was kind of fraught with the thought that my father’s gonna die, and my mother had all these kids, and what were we gonna do. And so there really wasn’t time for encouragement. It was about her stoically having children and just, you know, going like mad trying to make sure we ate and slept and got to school —and as I said, we were all attending parochial schools, so that was an extra expense. And starting a business is never an easy thing. So it wasn’t really until I was just about to graduate from high school that medical science finally caught up with my father’s illness. So he lived to be almost 90 years old. Eighty-nine years old. And he had self-administered shots every single day for nutrition. He survived his illness because of medical science. But it was never clear growing up that he would survive. So no, I don’t think they had any time to really encourage me.

Zierler:

Now, did you go to Catholic school through 12th grade?

Córdova:

Yes, I did.

Zierler:

What were some of the strengths or perhaps drawbacks from that experience, looking back?

Córdova:

Well, the good thing is it was a protective environment free from some of the influences that can be really distracting for young people. The nuns were always kind of, in ways both good and maybe not so good, just very protective. They would let me know when they thought I had an awful boyfriend from the other side of campus. I went to one of these co-institutional schools where the boys were instructed on one side of the campus, and the girls were instructed on the other. The other problem with that was that boys were offered different kind of classes than girls were. When it came to the sciences, like physics, there were five of us girls who really had the top grades in the whole school, and we just decided that physics was something we had to have — but it was mostly offered for boys, as if girls were taking up space in the class.

So we proposed that the boys could have our places in the art classes, because there were plenty of boys who wanted to do art, [laugh], after all! And so we sort of made that deal. It wasn’t a very formal deal. We just argued that we should be allowed to take the physics classes, and they said, “Fine. And so there will be room for those boys in some of the classes that you will not be taking.” And so it was more an arrangement like that, just understood. But it was not conventional for women to get a successive course of sciences. And I thought the nuns were rather harsh on us girls as far as grading us and encouraging us. I mean, we were all A students, and they would give us B-pluses and things like that. And I thought, “What’s with that?” I mean, these guys who were C students were getting As just for showing up. Those kind of things—and I have no idea looking back if those were real things, or if they were just imagined things, but we all felt because we were strong, and we were good in math—and we did have math classes and all—that we should be given more credit, and not be made to feel like we were taking somebody’s place in the class. So there was a little bit of tension. It wasn’t like a huge thing. There were no demonstrations or visits from parents or anything like that. It was just sort of making it known to the administration that this is what we were interested in. But we had to be our own source of encouragement. And as I said, there were just a small handful of us, and we were friends, and that’s how it went.

Zierler:

Was Stanford your dream school, or did you apply to a lot of colleges?

Córdova:

No. I didn't know much about Stanford. There was only one person from our high school who had ever been to Stanford before me, and he was the captain of the football team, one or two years ahead of me, and people made a big deal of that. I even remember his name was Larry Volmert —there is no reason on earth why I should remember his name except that it was just a significant event. And so then my parents wanted me to go to a Catholic all-girls college in New Haven, Connecticut, down the road from Yale, which was called Albertus Magnus. And it was because my great aunt, who was the sister of my grandmother—yeah—the sister of my grandmother was a nun. She had been a nun for 50 years. And the only thing that I remember about her was her name, Sister Mary Annunciata and she had the most amazing skin for an old person. And I think that’s because she never in her entire life had been out of doors. [laugh]

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

So that thought always stayed with me—“Hmm, that’s how you do it!” But anyway, Sister Mary Annunciata was affiliated with Albertus Magnus College. And so my parents desperately wanted me to go there. So I applied, and I got accepted, and they were excited about that. And then I thought, “Oh my god, that’s just gonna—that just sounds horrible.” So I had a debate partner, because I really liked debate and drama in high school, and my debate partner was applying to Stanford. And I said, “Well, tell me about that.” And he was a good friend. Not a boyfriend, but a really good friend. A smart, good friend. And he told me it was a really significant school, a very good school, it was hard to get in. And I thought, “Wow.” I had never been out of my hometown or away from Catholic school and all, and I thought, “Geez, why don’t I just apply?” And if we both got in, at least I’d know somebody, and so my parents might let me go. I wanted to apply to Berkeley, and that was out of the question. My parents said, “It’s too liberal, and there are demonstrations going on.” You know, it was the mid-sixties, and the Vietnam War and all that, and it was pretty rough and tumble. So I applied, and I got in. I was the first woman from my high school to attend Stanford. And my debate partner Michael Ryan got in. So that was all good. And it was California, so I wouldn't be that far away from home, which was in Southern California. So that was appealing. So my father starting asking his business associates, because he was in business, what did they know about Stanford? Because my parents didn't grow up knowing about Stanford. My mother had never been to college, and as I said, my father had just been to West Point.

So they got really good reviews, and his friends all said, “Oh my god, Stanford. Your daughter got into Stanford? That’s really great.” And so that appealed to him. And the fact that my friend was going, they liked him. And it was just a five-, six-hour drive away. Not across the country. And the thing they liked best about it was that it was, quote, a conservative school, and it wasn’t like across the Bay, Berkeley, and people dancing in Sproul Plaza, that sort of thing. So they said, “Fine.” And so I went to Stanford. By that time, my father was also—his business was doing well. He bought out his partner and could pay for Stanford, which had a significant price tag. And so that was that. So it was the only other place that I was allowed to apply to, besides Albertus Magnus. And fortunately, they didn't start demonstrating in Stanford until I was a junior, and then it was too late. So—[laugh]

Zierler:

Now, going in, was it a hard choice in terms of focusing on the arts or the sciences?

Córdova:

Well, it wasn’t really a hard choice, because I had no encouragement to go into the sciences, even though I loved it. But I also loved the arts. And I sat in on a couple science classes; they were frankly dreadful. All guys—teachers—ouch. Just the classes that I chose to sit in, not very interesting at all. And I went to some English courses, which were appealing. See, Stanford doesn't make you choose a major, unlike some schools, when you get in. You don’t really have to do that until your junior year. So that allows you a real sense of freedom to explore. I really loved languages. I kind of took after my father. Took French and Italian and just enjoyed that. And so it was just more a sense of, what could I do that I would be successful at and that I was going to be encouraged at? My parents just thought if I went into science, I would have to do this thing called graduate school, and oh my god, that seemed just dreadful to them. Because my mother thought the whole idea of going to college was to get an MRS degree! Find some man—when she saw that Stanford was loaded with guys who were going to be lawyers and doctors and everything, she thought, “Oh, that’s great. That’s why we're sending our daughter there!”

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

“She’s bright. She’ll take some English courses, and she’ll marry somebody successful.”

Zierler:

Did you ever push back on her with that attitude, or did you just let her have her way?

Córdova:

No, I really didn't. I mean, even years later, she would tell that story abut the MRS degree—she told that story to the Board of Regents when I got to be chancellor at UC Riverside.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

They all just laughed and laughed. I mean, I still have her speech and everything, because she—they had a ceremony, and she was asked to speak. But no, she just didn't have—you know, women weren’t thought of as going to have careers. There were only one or two women in the engineering school, and one was a friend of mine named Melissa. And I thought, “Wow.” And she said, “No, my dad’s an engineer. This is what I'm going to do.” And in the law school, I think there were only one or two women. I was just reading an article a couple days ago about a famous woman attorney that’s my age — she said never looked at the law school when she was in college, but knew that there were only a couple of women over there. Medical school, same thing. I mean, all those professions—they weren’t closed in the sense that said, “You can’t do this,” but there was just no encouragement, no welcoming —I don’t know, it just wasn’t done—no role models.

Zierler:

So you graduated with a degree in what? English?

Córdova:

In English, yeah. I took science courses like biology, which I think was kind of a requirement. You had to take a certain number of science units. I took astronomy and loved it, just loved it, and did very well in that course. But yeah, I took English, and languages, and I took anthropology—I just found it fascinating—as a minor. But then the thing that struck me the most was that college was very unpleasant at the time, because of the Vietnam war. And lots of our male friends including siblings and boyfriends and all, were—the draft was just starting, and there hadn’t been a draft before, and they had this number lottery, and your number would come up. My brother got like a number three, but he—RF’d? Is that what they call it? When you have a medical thing? Because he had been in a motorcycle accident, so he got out of it because he had metal plates in his legs. But it was just so scary to see your friends getting these low numbers.

Zierler:

In terms of campus protests, were you involved in that at all?

Córdova:

Well, my style is much more to be involved as a listener and as an observer. It has just been my style throughout my life. And certainly there, I would be the person in the back row of a big crowd, just—I didn't want to be in my dorm room hiding from it and pretending it didn't exist, like some of my friends did. But I also wasn’t going to be out there throwing rocks at the bookstore and being first in line in the protest. We had Joan Baez on the campus. She married our student body president, David Harris. And so when you've got Joan Baez leading protests with your student body president, you have to have some sort of sense of political interest. So I would go and I’d watch but not be an active demonstrator, but certainly an observer. I was very interested in what was going on. But I also wasn’t happy about it. War—who can be happy with that sort of thing?

So I did a lot of summer field work away from home. I really didn't want to work with my dad at his office. I did that the very first summer, and I thought, “Ugh, this is pretty awful.” It was busy work, not creative at all. So I made sure that every summer, I applied for a grant to be somewhere else. So my next summer, I was in Italy at Stanford in Florence, learning Italian, translating Italian poetry, that sort of thing. And the next summer, I went to Oaxaca, Mexico, with my anthropology professor and all his graduate students. I was the only undergrad. They put us in these different pueblos, and I did an anthropological field study. And that actually got me into graduate school at Stanford, but I didn’t go. But I was accepted. So I just graduated—I realized, at the beginning of my senior year, that I had enough units to graduate by Christmas time, so I just got out of there, two quarters early, which I figured saved my dad a lot of money. But I also just—I just—the whole experience of being in another country and doing the field work and being away from that environment of conflict—I just thought that the university was irrelevant for what I wanted to do. So I was happy to graduate early.

Zierler:

And so now, one of the big narrative turns that I've been waiting to ask you is, how did you come about deciding you were going to pursue a physics PhD at Caltech? How did that happen?

Córdova:

Well, I decided that I really didn't want to go to graduate school at that point. I wanted to take a year off and do something else. So as I said, I was accepted to both Harvard and to Stanford in anthropology.

Zierler:

In anthropology.

Córdova:

In anthropology, yeah. Because I loved the subject of linguistics. It was very mathematical. It appealed to me intellectually to try to understand how language shapes thought and the reverse—how thought shapes language. And I loved Noam Chomsky and everything he had to say about the subject, and all that. So that’s what I studied when I went to Oaxaca, the sociology of bilingualism, because they spoke Zapotec and Spanish in my pueblo. I'm not sure how I found out about my next step. I was dating the student body president—not the one who married Joan Baez, but the next one—who actually founded Earth Day, Denis Hayes—and he knew the student body president of Caltech very well because of their being student body presidents. So this young president at Caltech was friends with a couple of other Caltech students who were graduating, and they had an idea. They hoped to start a new endeavor for which they applied for funding from the Ford Foundation, to start what they called the Contemporary University.

Anyway, I got to meet the Caltech student body president and I was intrigued by the idea; I was intrigued by going back East to begin a new sort of startup in education. I thought that would be interesting to do for a while. So there were three guys and me, and we got the funding from the Ford Foundation, and we all went back East. And this student body president at Caltech was also a Harvard Junior Fellow, so he was living at Harvard. So we all lived nearby in Cambridge. He was also on President Reagan’s Kent State task force, so he had some notoriety there. We did our project with a number of universities back East. I could sense that it was a really hard thing to do for just a bunch of recent college graduates, and I thought—I wasn’t sure this, for various reasons, was going to go anywhere. And I happened to—that was the time of the moon landing, that summer, the summer of ’69. And I had also done a journalism thing the month before, because I won a writing contest, and I ended up in New York City writing for a magazine. And I decided that that—because that was always in the back of my mind to do that as a career, and I decided after I had gotten a month’s worth of insight into it, that that was probably not what I was going to do, was work for a big publication. It was part of Vogue publications, the Condé Nast empire of magazines.

And so after New York, then I went into Massachusetts and I joined this Caltech group to do the education project. It was summer, though, and we weren’t really going to start up until the fall. A I saw the moon landing, and I thought, “Wow, that’s really amazing.” But what was much more important was that I saw a show on public TV about neutron stars, which had just recently been discovered, and pulsars, in particular, because Jocelyn Bell’s results were just coming out. And there was an MIT professor, Paul Joss, who was talking on the show. And it was so inspiring! I thought, “Wow, I'm not doing much this summer, and that just seems really interesting to me. I wonder if I could get a job at MIT, just getting involved with an effort like that.” So I went and knocked on Dr. Joss’s door the next day, went down Mass Ave. to MIT. He or someone took me over to the Center for Space Research. There I met three professors at what is now called the Kavli Center for Space Research. One of them took me out to lunch at the MIT cafeteria and was intrigued by my personal story and enthusiasm. He offered me work in his lab —I said I would work for nothing, because I was already working in the education project. And he said, “OK, let’s check that out.” And the university said, “No, you can’t pay nothing to a person that’s working. You have to pay a little bit.” So they said they’d pay me a little bit. They put me on two projects. One was doing gamma ray balloon flight data analysis. It was a very simple thing. The data from balloon flights appeared as dark streaks, or tracks, on film. You push a button at the beginning of the track, and you push a button at the end of the track, and those represent cosmic sources that the balloon instrumentation detects, their positions on the sky. And so it was very rote kind of work. But all the other students were doing either something similar or more interesting, and I thought that was interesting enough. But the other project was much more important, and that’s that one of the professors was writing the first review article about x-ray astronomy, a new field. And I didn't realize it at the time, but he was intrigued that I was an English major from Stanford and could actually help him with this review article, namely gathering references and putting together the right bibliography for it, and going through and just reviewing for editing -- Actually things that I was really good at.

And so I found that just amazingly interesting, because I got to read all about the history of x-ray astronomy, which had just started. And he was one of the new leaders in it. And it really started me on a career in x-ray astronomy, because I got to know about everybody who was doing something in this new field, which was started by physicists coming into astronomy and completely upending the field with their knowledge of detectors and how those could be applied to space flights, because you have to detect x-rays from above the atmosphere , from rocket flights and balloon flights. I just really took to that and got more involved in the lab work. So at the end of the summer, these three professors all got me into graduate school there at MIT, which was a mystery to me, but as a so-called graduate student “at large.” And so I was actually starting there in classes, and then for reasons—my memory is short here—I just really wanted to be back in California. I had family, of course, there, and a boyfriend and all, and I was getting homesick for the place. And I was really discouraged with the education project. I thought the folks just didn’t know what they were really doing and getting into, and I didn't think it was going to go anywhere. So I went back home to California. And I introduced myself to one of the Caltech scientists I had read about in the review article. I knew all about his work. And he hired—

Zierler:

And who was this? Who are you talking about?

Córdova:

Gordon Garmire. He hired me as a computer programmer. He did not know that I didn't know anything about computing, but he assumed since I had been doing this balloon stuff that I might be familiar with it. And he had a lot of data that was going to need to be analyzed from an upcoming satellite mission called HEAO-1, and he also had a lot of data from the Uhuru satellite that had already been flying. And so he assigned me to an office with two other graduate students. And I was not a student at all. And I told them what he had asked me to do, and they said, “No worries, this is easy. Just read this—here’s the Fortran IV manual. We'll help you.” They were very helpful—one of them is still one of my close friends. And so I had an office, I had a job, and then I had to get some schooling. So I went to Cal State L.A. and I took background courses in physics and math there. Calculus and physics. And that turned out really well. I really studied very hard. I did my little job. I did both.

Zierler:

And France, I want to ask you, at this point here, are you thinking that you need to play catch-up—

Córdova:

Yes.

Zierler:

—since you didn't have a physics bachelor’s degree?

Córdova:

Oh, yeah. Oh, definitely. Yes, definitely. I absolutely had to play catch-up. So I took those courses, and then after a year, I asked Gordon if I could audit courses at Caltech, and just take the tests and all that. And he said yes and got the other professors to agree —Caltech is a very small place. Everybody knows everybody. And so I sat in a bunch of courses there. And I just did really, really well. I was getting all As in the courses. I was studying really hard. And then the faculty got together and admitted me to graduate school. They told me not to take the GREs [laugh] suspecting that I would not do very well on them. And there was no requirement to take the GREs. And so they admitted me to graduate school.

Zierler:

France, I want to ask, at this point here, there’s lots of very, very accomplished physics undergraduates who do not get into Caltech. And here you are, an English major from Stanford, taking some classes locally, you have a little experience at MIT. I'll ask the same question that you talked about with your nuns—what is it that they saw in you where it was clearly, I don’t know, a leap of faith, a bit of a risk in admitting you? How did that come about where they said, “Yeah, you're ready. You can come on board”?

Córdova:

Well, I only once asked one of them why. It was Tom Tombrello, for whom I've named—I do three scholarships at Caltech after the three professors who really helped me, and one was Gordon, and one was Gerry Neugebauer, who’s deceased, and one was Tom Tombrello, also deceased now. And I asked Tom, I said—years later, I said, “Why did you do that?” And he said, “Because you had a high slope.” [laugh] And I thought, “That was a very succinct way—“

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

[laugh] I guess they just saw if I could take off with that slope based on not much, that they just had the confidence in me. And I have to say—so in my class, there were about 20 of us in physics. I applied in physics, not in astronomy, because I thought physics offered me a bigger breadth of things I could do with it. There was only one other woman. And a number of the students didn't succeed, in the sense that they dropped out during the year, that first year. And they had great backgrounds. But they just—sometimes it was explained to me that you can just be doing something for too long, and your interests go elsewhere, or you just think, “Well, this isn’t really something that I really want to do.” Because the pressure—there’s a lot of pressure. But for me, the pressure was all new, and it was welcome. I like pressure. I react well under pressure.

And so anyway, I just succeeded. But they had these exams—so the way it goes there, you take—at a certain point, like two years later or so—I can’t remember exactly the timeline—but two or three years later, you take these four exams in thermodynamics, mathematical methods of physics, quantum mechanics, and modern physics. And so I took all four of them, and you're supposed to pass them, and if you don’t, they can decide what your next step is. Obviously the professoriate has ultimate flexibility. So I passed three of them well—the quantum, and the thermo, and the modern physics one, that Bob Leighton was—he was my next-door neighbor, had the next office over, had written the textbook. But I didn't pass the mathematical methods one. And it was very theoretical, the way the test was designed for that particular year. So they had a little confab, the professors did, and they decided, “Well, she passed three of them, and we didn't know what she was going to do —and she did well, so we will give her a math tutor for the next year.” And so they gave me as a tutor the person who wrote the book, Mathematical Methods of Physics, who was just down the hall from my office, Jon Mathews. That’s the kind of place it was.

So I met with Jon every week, Friday morning, just me and him, and we just went over the stuff, and he gave me things to do, problem sets to do. And then he got to—I don’t even remember if he got to decide at the end of the year if I had to retake the exam, but I took it and passed. And then Jon, he got remarried to somebody, and I remember I bought him a little—I was a graduate student; I bought him a fanny pack for a wedding present, because he was going off on a boat that he had designed and built with his new bride for a honeymoon. And they disappeared at sea. And so that was it. That was the last Caltech ever saw of him. But I always think about him, that he was so gracious to tutor me. Again, they must have believed in me, and that I was going to succeed, and that this was a hurdle, and I had to overcome this. So anyway, that was it. But he passed me before he went on his voyage around the world, and somewhere in the Indian Ocean, there was a big storm, and he and his new bride disappeared.

Zierler:

Now in developing usually dissertation thesis with Gordon, how did that work out? Did he incorporate you in the research that he was already doing?

Córdova:

Oh, absolutely.

Zierler:

He gave you a problem to work on?

Córdova:

Oh, yeah. From before I was even admitted, I was working with his group. His group was small—a couple postdocs, a couple graduate students, a couple undergraduate students. And yeah, he actually had a big space. He shared it with Gerry Neugebauer, so it was an infrared and x-ray floor. And we X-ray astronomers worked a lot with the infrared astronomers. Both Gordon and Gerry wanted all their students to know how to do research in both those parts of the spectrum. They actually had a thing—we called it like the Pauli exclusion principle—every office had to have an infrared person and an x-ray person. That was the only state allowed. And so I actually learned a lot of infrared astronomy. And we all had lab work. It was just—well, Gordon was an experimentalist and a physicist turned astrophysicist. And so we were designing payloads for rocket flights. I worked with his students who were doing rocket flights, and then went to White Sands, New Mexico, to launch rockets. And one of the people whose rocket I helped launch lives nearby me now—I can look right across from my home in Santa Fe, across to Los Alamos, and he’s up there right now working. And I went on a hike with him last weekend, my husband and I, and another couple. We have been great friends for decades. So I was in his Caltech group helping him launch rockets at White Sands. And then Gordon had an experiment on the HEAO-1 satellite, and that went up. And really my thesis was on that, on the x-ray data from that. So I was always in the group, always working with his students and postdocs, always doing computer data analysis and writing computer programs and doing analysis from space experiments.

Zierler:

And based on your dissertation topic, before obviously we get to the next stage in your career, what trajectory at the time did you think that set you on?

Córdova:

Oh, I just really wanted to be a research scientist. Very much so. In fact, when Gordon—Gordon had something that was going on with—I can’t remember exactly what it was—with an upcoming shuttle flight, and he asked me if he should propose me as a mission specialist on that Space Shuttle flight—because they were just starting to admit women into the program. And I had met—Sally Ride came through, and Kathryn Sullivan—that class came through Caltech just to visit and talk with people. And he said, “Would you like to be proposed to—obviously you have to go through all the hurdles and stuff.” But I said, “Absolutely not. I'll be darned if I spend all this time becoming a scientist, and then I go up in space”—that to me didn't seem like science at all. I mean, I was wrong about that —as I learned from many of my astronaut friends later on. But at the time I just really wanted to be a research physicist, very, very much. I had worked very hard to get there.

Zierler:

And to the extent that you thought about such things, what did you see as your primary contribution with your dissertation?

Córdova:

Oh! Well, actually it was very interesting and relevant to what I did more recently at NSF with multi-messenger astrophysics. As a graduate student I was right at the moment when facilities at different wavelengths were being opened up for a wider user base. Before I started graduate school, every instrument, every experiment was kind of owned by the group that designed it, and all the data would go to them and their students, and you couldn’t apply for time on somebody else’s instrument. But now, NASA was opening up these bigger space observatories where you could apply as a user. You could be anyone from any place. Obviously, your proposal had to be reviewed and accepted, but it was very obvious to me that things—these sources that were emitting x-rays which—you know, mind you, at those times, we didn’t know what these objects were. They were just very mysterious. And nobody expected when Riccardo Giacconi launched the first sounding rocket flights with X-ray detectors that he would discover sources like Sco-X-1 and Cygnus X-1; no one knew what they were, what their nature was. They didn’t expect to see anything but the sun, maybe x-ray reflectivity from the sun shining on the moon, fluorescent activity. They didn't expect to see these very bright x-ray sources. So a lot of it was very mysterious. We knew that in order to understand these x-ray sources, we were going to have to explore those sources at other wavelengths. We were going to have to get optical identifications, because the x-ray error boxes were huge, x-ray optics (collimated proportional counters) being as primitive at that time. So the fact that they were now opening up observatories on the ground in the optical and infrared and in space, in the ultraviolet x-rays and later gamma rays, was just magic.

And so I really made the most of it, and others of my generation did as well. And I got right in there on the ground floor. I hosted the first multi-wavelength conference—that was actually after I graduated, but—in Taos, New Mexico, and edited the first book called Multiwavelength Astrophysics. But I started that work in graduate school. And also, when it became clear in the middle of my graduate school career from scientists who visited Caltech, that a lot of these sources were binary sources, and that they were the result of one star transferring matter onto another star, a degenerate star, which had a high gravitational potential well and emitted x-rays when the matter would land on it, that there was a real opportunity in the optical to catch stars in flaring states and to be able to observe them in the x-ray and the optical simultaneously. So I joined forces with the American Variable Star Organization, AASVSO, and I was among the very, very first to do that. Among the first graduate students to do that. And I still feel close to this organization. Amateur astronomers would call me in the middle of the night and send me stuff, and let me know when these stars were visibly brightening. And so all of that really contributed to my thesis project, because then we were able to turn the x-ray telescope to look at these stars that were going boom in the middle of the night, and make seminal, original observations of them. So that was a very, very new endeavor to get into. And we made some discoveries. I mean, like soft x-ray pulsations from dwarf novae in optical outbursts, that hadn’t been done before. That was really new, a new observation that gave us clues about what was going on in those objects.

Zierler:

And then how did the opportunity at Los Alamos come about?

Córdova:

Well, it happened because of this graduate student that I worked with at Caltech named Bill Priedhorsky. He graduated before me and went off to Los Alamos. I think it’s because they offered him a staff job. And he was married, and he had a daughter, and so he felt he’d rather have a staff job, a good staff job, than a postdoc somewhere. And he visited Los Alamos and fell in love with it. I had applied for and gotten offers of postdocs from all sorts of places—Harvard, MIT, University of Colorado. Because I was a rarity; I was a woman in physics. And my thesis was interesting and I gave a good talk about my research discovery of soft X-ray pulsations from dwarf novae in outburst. I went around the country. It was a new observation. I was excited about it. Bill wanted me to come visit Los Alamos and see how nice it was there. And so he got his division leader, and group leader, to invite me to give a talk, which—you know, they pay you, and you visit and give a talk. I'll never forget the experience of driving up to Los Alamos from Santa Fe and seeing the mesas and the Jemez mountains and the badlands. It was breathtaking.

Zierler:

And you're back now. [laugh]

Córdova:

Yeah, exactly. I never left. And so I just absolutely fell in love with it. And then the person who headed the physics division was George Keyworth, who became a very close friend of mine. He became the president’s—President Reagan’s—science advisor. And I lived with him through that whole experience of being offered the Los Alamos job and visiting him when he had the White House job. I talked to him practically the day before he died. We were friends for a long time. And so he offered me a job there, and it was a staff job. And I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty nice.” I mean, I wasn’t married. I didn't have a family. But I thought, why would I want to go and do a two-year postdoc and then—et cetera, and all that—when I could go to this incredibly beautiful place—I had never seen anything like it—and have a staff job.

Zierler:

To the extent, France, that you knew the kind of work that you would be doing at Los Alamos, as you were considering this, did you look at this opportunity as a continuation or a departure from your research at Caltech?

Córdova:

Oh, very good question, and very much a continuation. Because they wanted—they realized they were missing out on not being able to do dual use studies with their space data. They had launched the Vela series of satellites—Vela 5 satellites—and they didn't have people who could analyze the results that—I mean, they were interested in particular detectors that were looking at things that had to do with the programmatics of the lab, but they had all this astrophysical data. And gamma ray bursts were just starting to be detected, and there were people very interested in that. And they had a lot of opportunity for dual use satellites -- looking up, looking down—you know, looking for violations in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, looking up at the heavens at the same time. So they very much wanted an astrophysicist, and they wanted to hire more of them. So they said, “You can hire other people too, if you come here.” And they promised that I was not going to be involved in the actual programmatics, for example, the detection of possible violations of the nuclear test ban treaty,, and I was going to be given a free rein in astrophysics plus hiring more people.

Zierler:

So the plan was never for you to get involved in national security oriented research?

Córdova:

Never, never. Actually, in retrospect, I probably should have done that, because now, from a much larger, longer perspective, I just see how important that part of the portfolio is to our country. And I honestly think I could have led one of the national labs if I had had that background, but without that, I couldn't do that. By one of the national labs, I mean one of the NNSA labs. So I did just stick with astrophysics. Actually, I got to know a lot of the scientists there, because then-director Sig Hecker made me the chair of the Scientific Advisory Council that reported directly to him. And the top scientists of the laboratory belonged to that Council. So that was a very special position.

Zierler:

Can you tell me a little bit about Sig’s leadership style? I've heard a lot about him. I hope to interview him soon. How was he as a leader and a mentor?

Córdova:

Yeah, he lives in Santa Fe, so there’s lots of us that— [laugh]

Zierler:

Never left.

Córdova:

—don’t get tired of this experience. Yes, Sig is just like super-duper smart, and a very good, kind, genuine person. I don’t know if his leadership style was—you know, everybody has a different leadership style. He had this matrix management style, which you can ask him more about in detail. But I'm not sure it was the right style for later on, when things got really tight with budgets, and he had to let people go and all that. And by that time, I had left the laboratory, so anything I know about that is all hearsay or reading articles. But it’s very, very hard in an area like this, which is really a tri-cultural state, where you have the Native American population, Hispanic population, and white population, to—when you have times when you have to do massive layoffs, who you lay off and in what order and all that sort of thing. And so I think that was a very interesting and very difficult conundrum. I know that he had what they called matrix management, and that was introduced across the Lab. That’s different than a more pyramid style of management. It’s arguably harder to manage even though it seems very good in principle to get people all matrixed in different ways to different parts of the organization. I don’t know. I eventually learned a lot about management because that’s what I really ended up doing, though I never anticipated it. I think one’s management style has to be very flexible and has to resonate with the times that you're in. And you have to be very close to the people that you're managing, no matter what style it is. The farther you get away, the more danger you put yourself in as a manager. You just don’t want to be too remote.

Zierler:

Now in terms of your work as an astrophysicist within the context of the lab, how well connected were you with the larger astrophysics community? Were you collaborating with people in academia, in NASA? Or were you sort of like operating in your own world in Santa Fe?

Córdova:

No, very much collaborating. Very much. I was on many different committees. And again, I was kind of a rarity, being a woman in that discipline. I was very involved. I had a lot of NASA funding. And as I said, we were putting on workshops—Bill and I and our small team of astrophysicists—in Taos, called the Taos Workshops. Every year, we would have a workshop on a different subject matter, and we’d publish a book of papers. Everybody would contribute a paper, and one of us would be the editor and turn that out. So we were always bringing astrophysicists into the area as visitors. And I had a number of postdocs, and even undergraduate students. We had a good collaboration with the University of Chicago, because Rocky Kolb, who’s still there, had an Oppenheimer fellowship at the laboratory and I got to know him well. And so we established a collaboration. And Mike Turner—he is still a very close friend. He’s now at the Kavli Institute, but he was at University of Chicago until very recently. He and Rocky would send us students, because they realized it was a good environment every summer, and so they’d come to work with us. So it was very much an open environment, both literally and figuratively. Nowadays, it’s very—after 9/11, everything kind of closed in, and now you go through all sorts of gates you didn't have to in those earlier days. Our building was open, and so you could drive up and park in the parking lot, and go in! And there were certain sections that were along corridors that had to be closed, there you had handprints or something like that, to enter. But the major part of our building was just completely open. So it was different days at that time.

Zierler:

What do you feel like your primary scientific achievement at Los Alamos was?

Córdova:

Well, I was there for about a decade. I think it was really getting involved in this multiwavelength astrophysics, setting up collaborations around the world, around the country and the world, to be observing celestial sources at the same times. So I just used all manner of satellites and ground-based observatories. I traveled all over the world. Went to Goddard a lot of times, using different satellites that they were in charge of. So I think it was just pushing that frontier forward, the whole multiwavelength thing. In graduate school, it was discovering these x-ray pulsations from these dwarf novae that were in outburst. And then at Los Alamos, it was more using the entire electromagnetic spectrum to try to understand sources that would emit across the spectrum, including the very highest energy wavelengths.

Zierler:

Now when the opportunity at Penn State came about, how was that put together? Did they recruit you?

Córdova:

Yeah. So Gordon—Gordon. [sigh] Oh, he—Gordon ended up while I was at Caltech marrying another professor’s wife. Jon Mathews was my tutor, but my actual math professor was George Zweig, a very, very famous scientist who had developed with Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann “the eightfold way,” and could have been also named for the Nobel Prize. Gordon fell in love with Audrey Zweig and married her, and then they decided to leave Caltech. I knew that they were thinking of leaving, and I wanted him to come to Los Alamos, so I invited him to come and spend a few months. And Gordon and Audrey came to the lab for a while. But little did I know, others were recruiting Gordon as well, knowing that he was going to be leaving Caltech. And so he went to Penn State, which was Audrey’s home state. And so their families went too —and Penn State gave him a named chaired professorship. His big project was going to be—what eventually turned out to be a major experiment on Chandra called AXAF at the time—the Advanced X-ray Astronomy Facility. He brought these programs, his experimental programs, to Penn State. And then when he got there, he saw that the person who was department head, Satoshi Matsushima, I think—might have gotten the last name wrong—Satoshi—was going to retire after 17 years of leading the department. And so Gordon just thought of me, and he called me one day and he said, “Are you tired of having fun?” And I said [laugh] “What do you mean?” Because he had been at Los Alamos for a few months. And he said, “Well, we have need of a department head here, and I’d like to know if you'd like to interview.” And I said, “Well, do you think I have any chance of doing that?” And he said, “Yes. Why don’t you come and talk with us?” So I thought about it. I mean, I was really happy at Los Alamos. And of course there, I met my husband, and we had two little babies, very little babies—a one-year-old and a three-year-old. And in fact, the one-year-old could have been still incubating at that time. But anyway, I went to interview.

Zierler:

And you interviewed specifically to head the department as chair?

Córdova:

Yeah, to head the department. And there were no women in the department.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

So the interview was all guys.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

So I figured, if you're going to join a department in which there are no women, you should really be the head of it, because then, you know, what can go wrong?

Zierler:

So France, I want to ask you at this point—this reminds me back to the last significant quantum leap, which is jumping into Caltech as a physics graduate student without the physics undergraduate.

Córdova:

Right.

Zierler:

So I'm curious—between the two, what did you feel like you were more prepared for? To head an academic department at Penn State, or to jump in as a physics graduate student at Caltech? Which was the bigger leap for you?

Córdova:

Hold on one second. I have to—my computer tells me that the Mac will go to sleep soon unless it’s plugged in, so I have to plug it in.

Zierler:

OK, go for it.

Córdova:

OK. There we go. Well, I didn't think of either of them as leaps. If I thought of them as leaps, I think I would have—it’s like—so my favorite sport that I learned in college and continued all through was rock climbing. And in rock climbing, you don’t leap, because that can lead to bad outcomes.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

You look at something, you size it up, you assess what needs to be done, and then you either decide that, “Mm, I better repel back off to something else” or you just kind of go for it. But you trust your partner, you trust your equipment, you trust yourself. And I guess that’s how I felt about both of those, is that I just kind of—I trusted my partner, who was my husband. I trusted myself. I just—I guess I'm just not so afraid of things. I just didn't—I should probably be more afraid of things, but I'm not. I remember Dan Goldin once telling me at NASA when I—you know, we're very close now. Very close friends. But he used to kind of yell at me once in a while. And I said—one time when he was doing that—I said, “Don’t worry, Dan. I don’t take it personally.” And he said, “Maybe you should!” [laugh]

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

I said, “Oh!” But I just liked that. I guess I just—there’s something about me that just doesn't get caught up in thinking about what I can’t do—and so I didn't think it was a big—

Zierler:

So in taking the job at Penn State, do you feel like there was a particular mandate that you had, that you were hired for? A mandate for diversity or growing the department or increasing funding?

Córdova:

Well, diversity wasn’t a—I don’t think it was a big thing at the time, at least not so much in the vocabulary as it later became. I think they definitely needed to do some changes and hire some new young people in there, because there were people from a previous generation when there was more emphasis on teaching, and not so much on research. And with Gordon going in there and being a really top researcher, they wanted to hire more researchers and more young people. And of course I think it was obvious that they needed to hire more women, the department did. So probably all those things figured into it. Whatever mandate there was wasn’t clearly expressed to me. We had a wonderful dean named Greg Geoffrey, who went on to hire—half his department heads in the College of Science were women at the time I was there. So diversity probably did figure into that, and he was a very creative, forward-looking person, so I'm sure he had some influence on that. And I'm not really sure—Gordon’s kind of a quiet person, more introverted than extroverted, so I'm not sure he ever really made it clear. But he felt comfortable with me being his department head.

Zierler:

Were you able to take on graduate students during your time at Penn State?

Córdova:

Yeah, I had several graduate students.

Zierler:

Were you able to do any undergraduate teaching?

Córdova:

I did not do any teaching until I got to Riverside, UC Riverside. It was probably a mistake, but I didn't think of it as that. Nobody asked me to do it. They all assumed that being a department head was a big enough job. And no, I just didn't do any teaching there. So as I said, it was probably—I should have done that. But I just didn't—there was no pressure to do that, and I just didn't even think—and I didn't really have experience doing it.

Zierler:

You hadn’t really taught yet.

Córdova:

No. I hadn’t been in the system or associate professor or anything.

Zierler:

Now what was the research that you were able to keep up with at Penn State?

Córdova:

Well, going back to Los Alamos, like my third or fourth year there, I had collaborators that I had been working intensely with, who were in England, and some in Italy, other countries, Belgium. And I wanted to have the equivalent of a sabbatical, and so I applied for a NATO postdoctoral fellowship. Even though I was a full-time person at Los Alamos, that opportunity jopened, and I thought it would be nice to take a year off from Los Alamos. At that point, I hadn’t met my husband, and there was no emotional tie keeping me in Los Alamos. I intended to return, of course, but I thought it would be fun to go overseas and work more closely with my collaborators.

So I applied for this NATO postdoctoral fellowship, and I went to Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Holmbury St. Mary in England. And there, I was an office mate with two people, one of whom was a British collaborator of mine, and the other one is a person who is now head of the LSST or Vera Rubin Observatory project. We were three young, creative people, and we wanted to do a space mission that would have a multiwavelength platform in space. I had applied with my friend Bill at Los Alamos to have such a platform on the AXAF mission, but it wasn’t in the baseline, and it didn't get accepted. But we had spent a lot of work writing the proposal, so we thought, why don’t we do this for a mission that was coming up that the European Space Agency was launching? A big cornerstone mission called XMM, which now is called XMM-Newton. And so we applied for it. We wrote the proposal when I was at Mullard Space Science Laboratory. And it was accepted. And so I became kind of the U.S. lead on that project. Since it was a European project, my British collaborator was the official lead on it. And NASA paid for my involvement.

So I brought that project with me to Penn State and hired people that would be part of that project. It was a big project. It was well-funded. By the time I went to NASA from Penn State, I had like 12 grants, mostly from NASA, small grants and big ones, the space experiment and all. So I was doing that. And that’s another reason that I didn't teach, because I was a PI on 12 grants, plus being the department head. So that was kind of my biggest project. And then I had, as I said, a number of smaller grants to do observational astronomy and to start a multiwavelength project in which people all over the world would be alerted to cosmic transients -- popping off in the middle of the night -- and point their telescopes to these sources,. But I think the XMM project to do an optical telescope on this x-ray satellite, an optical-UV telescope, was clearly the biggest thing.

Zierler:

Now, when the NASA opportunity came along, were you thinking about leaving Penn State at that time, or this came out of the blue?

Córdova:

Oh. No, I wasn’t thinking about leaving —I was having a good time.

Zierler:

I mean, four years is a relatively short tenure. Not as a department chair, but just to be in an academic department.

Córdova:

That’s right. That’s right. Well, officially, if you look at my papers, it’s seven years, because if you're a rotator, which I was as chief scientist at NASA, it’s like being an IPA at NSF; they pay—the agency pays your university to pay your salary and benefits.

Zierler:

Oh, so you retained the affiliation with Penn State.

Córdova:

Oh, definitely. My plan was to go back to Penn State. And we kept our house there. We rented it.

Zierler:

But you actually moved to D.C. in ’93.

Córdova:

In ’93, yes. Had to, because we had two young children, so I wasn’t going to leave them with my husband [laugh] all alone, and leave my husband. He actually got a job at NOAA, and I had the one at NASA. Our children came with us and we move to McLean.

Zierler:

To the extent that you thought about at the time, as chief scientist—this is two breakthroughs, right? As the youngest person to hold that job, and as the first woman to hold that job, right?

Córdova:

Right.

Zierler:

Just in terms of how you think about these things, are those kinds of things—are they interesting historical details, or are they important to you personally and they shape the way you see the job, they shape the way that you go about setting up an agenda, the things that you want to accomplish? How do you look at those things both in retrospect and as they were happening?

Córdova:

Well, what you're saying, I look at more in retrospect than as it was happening. I'm just more of an adventurer in the “as it’s happening” moment. If somebody came and knocked on the door right now—and I'm really, really happy here—and said, “Tomorrow, if you're ready, we're going to the moon”—or Mars or something—“OK, well, I have a few questions. Can I bring this? Can I bring that?” My husband. You know, et cetera. And then, “Yeah, I'll be ready.” I'll lock the doors, turn on the alarm. I wouldn't necessarily have a mission plan. But in retrospect, I would say, “Well, that changed my life.” So, yes. So the provost at Penn State was a really wonderful person, and he was always trying to get people to do new things. And when he was asked—because he was well-known—to suggest somebody to be on the Medal of Science Committee for NSF—and that’s a presidential appointment. It was President Bush, the first one. And so he nominated me, and I got on that committee. And then the chairman of that committee was a good friend of Dan Goldin’s, and when Dan came into this position—and I believe the chairman was like head of Scripps, something like that, one of those Southern California institutions—and he said, “You know, I’d really like to talk with women about this position. I want to make a difference, and I want things to open up for science and women in science. So what women do you know in science that I should talk to, that have some NASA experience?”

And so this guy, because we had been together at these meetings, thought of me, and he said, “Well, you could talk with France Córdova. She’s at Penn State. She’s head of the department there. Astronomy and Astrophysics.” So he was assigned, the chairman was, Lou Friedman—he was assigned to call me and ask if I would talk with and visit with the NASA administrator. So I did. I thought, “Well, what have I got to lose? I've got a free trip to D.C.” So I flew down there and had dinner with Dan, and we really hit it off. We just kind of think alike. And I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” So I went back home and got about my work. But very soon thereafter, like the next day or two, he called me up and offered me the job. And I said, “Give me a minute to think about it.” So I talked with a lot of my friends who were department chairs in other places, because that was the group that I mostly talked with. And they just thought it was a terrible idea. Oh, first of all, Dan is—you know, Dan is Dan.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

An unusual and energetic leader. Because he was just kind of starting out, and was trying to change lots of things at the same time. And that always frightens people. And then I talked with one of my best women friends who was chair of the history department at Penn State, and she’s now at Stanford. And my mother. And both of them felt the same way. They said, “Well, why would you not want to do something like that? It’s just for three years.” And Dan wanted four years—the college said, no, two, and they compromised at three in the end. But, “It’s just for a few years. And you're always talking about how important it is that women in science have more opportunity, advantage, access, and all this, and that would give you a huge platform to speak from. It’s NASA.” So that kind of convinced me to go for it and try it out. And my husband thought it would be interesting. So we all went there and interviewed with Dan. NSF had a goodbye event for me on February 6th of this year in D.C., and they asked, “Who’s the one person from your past do you want to speak?” And I said, “Oh, Dan.” So he flew out especially from his home in Malibu. And he still talked to that audience about that first interview, with our two kids running around The Cheesecake Factory. Anyway, we all had a good time. So I joined NASA as a rotator. The idea was after three years, I’d go back to Penn State. And so yeah, so that’s—it was an amazing experience. It really changed me. I didn't even know what the word “policy” meant when I did it. All I knew was research —

Zierler:

That gets me to my next question. Because it’s such a complicated job. You're thinking about policy, you're communicating what the scientific ranks are telling you, and you're communicating this up to the administrator, knowing that this has major political ramifications. So I guess my question is, how well acquainted were you in general with what was going on at NASA at the time, both in terms of its relative place within the larger policy context in D.C., and in terms of the science and the research that they were conducting? How well prepared were you in terms of knowing those basic questions going in?

Córdova:

Probably I knew more about the research, because I was on a lot of committees, that sort of thing. You know, science committees. I knew the head of science there. I knew the rest of the people that would advise him, and the division, the program leaders, and all those folks, very, very well, because of my own work there. I had been funded by NASA for quite a while at that point. So I felt very comfortable. On the policy domain, I wasn’t nearly as familiar with what were the big policy questions of the time. I'm not sure that I had just paid a lot of attention to it. I was very, very seriously involved in research. And I guess if there’s one policy thing that I was involved in back at Penn State, it was getting more women into science and giving them more opportunity.

Zierler:

Now, in the world of finite resources, both from a budgetary and a time perspective, what did you feel at NASA were the projects that were in most need of support, most need of development of moving onto the next stage? [break in conversation] [end 200511_0103_D] [begin 200511_0104_D]

Zierler:

OK, this is David Zierler picking up my conversation with France Córdova. So France, where we left off, my question was, in an atmosphere of limited time and budget at NASA, how did you prioritize the projects to support?

Córdova:

Well, clearly—so I'm working in the office of the administrator, so his priorities are my priorities, right? So there are just a few of us in there—his chief of staff, his assistant, me, the deputy, and the deputy’s assistant, and that’s about it. Yeah. So he had a very high priority on what he called bringing science back to NASA. He felt that it had become too much an operational agency or focused on operations, and he wanted it to be science-driven, which was a worthy goal. So I brought in lots of scientists to talk with him about what were the most important things to do. I started an administrator’s lecture series in which two or three people would have a point-counterpoint debate, discussing interesting and sometimes controversial topics in space science from different points of view. I introduced the speakers, and he always participated and took a great interest in them. In fact, I have all the lectures on those VHS tapes, I noticed, the other day, when we were cleaning out the garage. So that was the main goal, to emphasize that science should drive NASA’s mission. The Administrator gave a lot of lectures. I don’t know if you know Dan, but he’s a great speaker. I was a sounding board for him.. My presence was important to him at Congressional hearings too. He never did a hearing without me and the controller at the witness table with him. The three of us would sit there, and if there were science questions—you know, he always said, “If there are science questions, you can handle them, France,” but he always liked to handle all the questions himself. [laugh] So I didn't have a lot. But I'm actually on tape—because some company did a video of a few scientists called The Path of Least Resistance, and they taped me at one of the Congressional hearings where Senator Mikulski was really questioning me about making choices between different satellite experiments, because of cost. So aside from that, I was helpful in representing the agency in a lot of venues—there were a lot of places where he couldn’t spend his time.

So for example, on the Government-Industry Research Roundtable, GUIRR, an arm of the National Academies, I was the NASA representative. Going down to Antarctica to decide whether the Senate should fund refurbishment, an expensive refurbishment—a couple hundred million dollars—of the South Pole station there—I was the representative who went. And lots of the more really specifically science-oriented things to do with the National Academies or the National Science and Technology Council, that policy arm of OSTP, I was the person that represented NASA.

Zierler:

Now, I want to run a particular question by you, and it has to do with this idea that there was a binary choice of funding between the SSC and the space program in 1993. Do you have any insight on that at all, in terms of the Clinton administration and the peace dividend, and the idea that only the SSC or something in NASA would be able to be funded? Have you ever heard anything like that?

Córdova:

No, I came to NASA at the end of ’93. But I think it made a huge impression on Dan that the SSC went down, that it didn't get voted for funding by Congress. He never looked at it as an either/or. I think he looked at it as a lesson in how the science community didn't hang together. That there were a lot of physicists that—and I know there have been books written about it, and I've actually been sent books by people who have written them, that I haven't read, but I've talked with a lot of people about it—a lot of physicists who got funding for smaller team efforts or individual efforts, were afraid that the SSC would eat their lunch. And they thought that if we didn't do that, there would be more money for them. And Dan, right away, he just had a very, very good grasp of politics, and the politics of science. And he knew that if it didn't get voted in, that [laugh] that money would go elsewhere, to other things. But he and a lot of people thought that the community did not come together on the importance of this; that really led to the downfall of the SSC. So he took that lesson very seriously, and when it came to the space station, which actually wasn’t voted on until later, he did two things. One is that he believed in visiting everybody in Congress who could have a vote. And if for some reason he couldn't meet with the senator or the representative, he would meet with their staff, and he treated the staff as if they were that person whom they were working for. I was very impressed by that. And he would do something like a half a dozen visits to Congress a day. A day. I was usually in tow, and I would carry the slides and be there to answer any kind of technical science question or what we were doing about science in the space station. Because I led that effort at NASA, about how we would use the space station to do science. And so that was one lesson he learned. And the other one is to keep the messaging in all his talks and the talks of all his administrators, that if this thing -- The Station -- goes down, you don’t get more money, OK? Because it’ll go somewhere else. So the way to think about it is that when NASA gets a dollar, yes, 80 cents of it is going to go to aeronautics, things like the shuttle, the big-ticket things, the part of the program of NASA that wasn’t science. But 20 cents of that dollar was going to go to science, and that’s how to think about it. So if you get a space station, then the money that is appropriated, then you can expect to see—based on history of how these things go, you can expect to see 20% of that. So I think those arguments were much more compelling. As you know, it was a narrow victory, but it was a victory, and one which he personally, I believe, was responsible for.

Zierler:

Generally, what was your sense of the impact of the fact that the Cold War had ended during your time at NASA? How had that changed either the research mission or the budgetary environment at NASA?

Córdova:

I don’t think it changed it very much, because there were other things—you know, one thing’s coming down, and other things are going up. So definitely getting ready for the space station and of course the shuttle was a big deal. And there were some big projects in the queue. You know, big space missions and all—Gravity Probe B and some of the big cornerstone missions. And the Mars missions carried a lot of excitement with the potential for new discovery.. And Dan was very excited and engaged—his big scientific intellectual pursuit was the search for life beyond Earth, and I thought it was just brilliant the way he turned that from a search for little green men to search for life itself in whatever form.—the cellular components of life. And that took it out of the realm of imagining funny-looking creatures and making fun of it, to actually serious endeavors about, what is life itself? And he brought in scientists who studied RNA, DNA; they talked about the characteristics of life. And the signatures of life in planets, like the chemical signatures of an atmosphere that would indicate a presence of life. So it was those kinds of themes, I think, that at least for NASA, got people excited, carried a lot of weight. I didn't feel that we were particularly strapped by not having a Cold War mission. Also, because of the space station being an international space station, he sort of turned the game around from being about fighting with a big giant country to actually having them as allies on the space station. So Russia, Japan, Canada, they were all very important, provided essential things, and obviously especially Russia for flight support after the shuttle program.

Zierler:

What do you see as your primary contributions both to astrophysics and to science policy during your tenure at NASA?

Córdova:

It was short, three years, but I thought pretty powerful. And again, that’s because I came in with good understanding of NASA and a good relationship with the NASA administrator, who gave me a lot of free rein and a good environment in which to choose problems. I mean, we chose the public communication of science, so I think we were on the forefront of—today, it’s just ever so much easier with all the web-based tools and such to access really great stuff from a lot of different sources. But you have to remember that in those days, it was in the middle 1990s, it was all pretty new, but we were developing the first tools in public communication of science. I certainly think the whole astrobiology theme was just turned on its head, and that got to be—but again, Dan’s vision led. I was the implementor. That was what I was assigned to do, to get the Astrobiology Institute going, to get good leadership for that, to get good people in to persuade Dan about the important science problems NASA could address—once Dan was convinced of something, he could convince anybody of it.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

And get a scientific program going for the space station. One of the things I did that I consider very important—little understood until more recently when we grappled with sexual harassment policy —was the whole research misconduct thing. When I started at NASA, all the agencies had a different definition of research misconduct, and it was causing a great deal of confusion in the scientific community. That if you did certain kinds of activity, it was considered by one agency to be research misconduct, and in another agency, it wasn’t, because there were all these different definitions. So I got together an interagency group —we had lawyers like Dick Merserve in there and experts from the Academy, and we really laid out a different way of thinking about the definition of research misconduct. And then we got all the agencies and all the inspectors general, some of whom actually put up the biggest fight in the beginning, to agree. And that has served us well into the present. So I think that was a very important policy thing to do. And then there was a lot of stuff about peer review. You know, peer review goes through some criticism from time to time —hmm—people think it’s the best of many not-so-great options, or people think it limits high-risk, high-reward research. Or people think, oh, if it’s not done with peer review, then it’s just trash. So there’s a lot of different feelings on the spectrum of review of peer review. And so at that time, it was undergoing some criticism —you know, all it takes is one op-ed or article by somebody that’s fairly well known or a good journalist, and then it throws lots of reviews into play. But we rode that wave. So yes, I think overall, it was a very good, very important time, not the least because I think Dan was able to establish credibility with scientists, that he really cared about science. I was his agent in helping to bring that about.

Zierler:

And then UC Santa Barbara called.

Córdova:

Well, yes. So as I said, we kept our house in Penn State, and we were prepared to go back there. And then, all sorts of offers were coming in to interview for either dean of science at a university or vice president/chancellor of research.

Zierler:

Had you considered staying on at NASA?

Córdova:

Well, no, because I had—no.

Zierler:

It was always a limited term kind of deal?

Córdova:

It was a rotator. And also, again, I sort of hung onto that ideal that I had worked so hard—I had worked hard to be a research scientist, and to get a university position now, and why would you give up a professorship, right? It just didn't make sense to me. I wanted to be at a university. Various lecturers came through NASA all the time, and one person who came through was Jeff Dozier from UC Santa Barbara, a geoscientist, environmental scientist, who later led the new Bren School that started while I was there. And Jeff had this brochure of Santa Barbara, and it has that unforgettable picture on the back page of what the campus looks like with the waves, the blue waves, lapping up to the campus along its shores. So I brought home the brochure to my husband, and I said, “You know, if we're thinking of where to go, we could do worse than Santa Barbara.”

Zierler:

[laugh] That’s right.

Córdova:

Well, just coincidentally, Jeff or somebody brought back to Santa Barbara the word that I was going to be transitioning out of NASA, and Jim Langer, who was the head of the search committee for vice chancellor for research told Henry Yang, the chancellor, that I should be interviewed. And so they invited me. And I had just seen this picture and everything, and I said yes. And then I went and interviewed. And I was the first person that interviewed for that job, but immediately after I interviewed, they were just convinced they wanted me, and they went to Henry and they said, “That's it. Stop the interviews. She’s got another offer.” Which I did, from Rice University. They said to Henry, “You just have to do your magic.” Because Henry is very good at twisting arms. So he called me like at 1:00 in the morning—he got the times screwed up. You know, it was only 10 pm there, but it was 1 a.m. where I was, back East.. And he convinced me to really, really think seriously about it. I think he was having a little joust with Malcolm Gillis, the president of Rice, about who could get this person that they both would like to have. So anyway, my family lived just a couple hours away in Los Angeles—my parents, a lot of my siblings—and we went out there, to California. Well, we went to Houston first. It was summer. And it was very, very humid, and my husband asked one of their faculty members, “What do you do with your children”—because she had children young, like ours—“during the summer?” And she said, “Oh, we don’t let them out. It’s too humid here.”

Zierler:

[laugh] That did it. [laugh]

Córdova:

So we went to Santa Barbara, where everybody was sailing and surfing and—[laugh].

Zierler:

I wonder, France, if another part of the draw was the fact that the physics department at Santa Barbara had really grown into a powerhouse.

Córdova:

Oh yes, absolutely. It had a fabulous, fabulous physics department, and I was very, very pleased to be a member of that. And they had the Institute for Theoretical Physics that was aligned with it, and that turned out to be all a great choice, because several people won the Nobel Prize while I was there. You know, Alan Heeger, a physicist who won the prize for Chemistry, and Herbert Kroemer from engineering who won the prize for Physics. And somebody else. There were about three of them that all won the prize around the same time. And of course David Gross, the head of ITP, then won it afterwards, after I left. As did Shuji Nakamura. But they were candidates for the Nobel Prize while I was there. And Walter Kohn was there, and he had just won the Nobel Prize for Physics. There were many distinguished people there from various disciplines, and many were connected with physics. It was just an amazing place, very interdisciplinary.

Zierler:

And when you were there, what was the rough breakdown in terms of administrative and academic duties?

Córdova:

Well, it was a purely administrative position. Because it’s a big position, and you're also part of the whole University of California complex. So you’re like part of a big family, and you meet with your peer group a lot. We met with the president of the university system a lot, Dick Atkinson. So I didn't really have academic duties as such, although I was a member of the department and participated in their various committees and hirings and that sort of thing.

Zierler:

So your position was not necessarily physics-based. It had a broader portfolio.

Córdova:

Exactly. Because I was vice chancellor for research, so it was over the whole—I was part of Henry Yang’s cabinet, and UCSB was a big research powerhouse.

Zierler:

What were some of the big initiatives that you were a part of during those years?

Córdova:

Well, I asked for a dowry when I came there as a condition of my employment—I requested some hundreds of millions of dollars, to start an effort—I called it Research Across Disciplines. That was in the day before the word “interdisciplinary” was much used, but I sensed that there was a real spirit of that at that university. So I started a program like a mini-funding agency within my position to fund projects—I had a group of prominent people at the university reviewing them. The proposed projects had to span more than one college. I mean, it couldn’t be like chemists working with physicists unless they were also working with somebody in the college of humanities or social science or psychology or something else. They also had to be doing projects that would be so high-risk that they wouldn't be funded right now by a funding agency. So we funded a number of very good things, just about all of which led to much, much bigger funding—once they developed proof of concept—after a couple years.

So it was a very successful program. It was called RAD, Research Across Disciplines. And it really made a difference. I went back to Santa Barbara this October to see what’s happening and see what NSF was investing in, and Henry asked me to give a talk. And the talk, it was just packed. There were twice as many people in the room than it could comfortably hold. They were all standing around the room, people that remembered my time there, and just wanted to say something nice about getting them going in different research directions. So I think it was a good tenure. And our kids grew up there. They went to grade school. They started high school there. And Henry’s still the chancellor there, [laugh] so glad I didn't stay, right? [laugh] I've lived several lives since then!

Zierler:

But you were clearly on track to—I mean, in the UC system, chancellor at Riverside is the equivalent of a president at a similarly sized school.

Córdova:

Right, right. And as you know, the terms chancellor and president are reversed at different places. So in the UT system, the university calls them presidents of the campus, and then chancellor of the system. And in the UC system, they're chancellors of the campus and president of the system.

Zierler:

And so when you moved to Riverside, I assume they recruited you as well?

Córdova:

Yes, well Riverside—it’s all part of the UC system, and Henry and others thought I would be good at that. I had been at Santa Barbara for six years. So he proposed me to Dick Atkinson. The president with the Board of Regents and faculty and student representatives make the decision. They're the interview group. So I interviewed in front of the Board of Regents, and then they hired me. I had competition, and Dick Atkinson told me I did. It’s interesting, what he said at the time, because it has come back to me by others, including by Kelvin Droegemeier, recently. So I come across as kind of this quiet person, but I'm not really quiet inside. [laugh] And so Dick had heard that I was kind of mellow, and there was another candidate who was very dynamic. On the Myers-Briggs spectrum, that person would have been an E and I would have been an I. And so he said, “Well, you've got competition, France. This other person has a reputation for being really out there and everything.” But I think when I actually met with the Regents—I just have something, just some kind of depth to the way that I talked about the things they were interested in, that they were just impressed with, and that I had kind of a hard core. And Dan always said that too, that I had a backbone of steel. So it’s just something I've learned in life, that you don’t always have to be noisy, and you don’t have to be an extrovert to do something important or be successful. That even us introverts can [laugh] do OK! But you do have to have something inside that’s kind of more E-like. [laugh]

Zierler:

Now, I've heard it said of Riverside that they were looking to establish, I don’t know, what might be called a third pole relative to UCLA and Berkeley. Was that your sense in terms of the grand ambitions that Riverside was looking to achieve?

Córdova:

Oh, I don’t think so. I think they definitely wanted to elevate their stature and wanted to assess what would be good in doing that, in moving them forward. You know, there was a time, around that time, that all the schools wanted to be part of the AAU. Like that was the gold standard. And if you were an AAU school, then you had a gold halo around your head, and you could do anything, and that was the ultimate prestige. I think a lot of that is not the case anymore, because there have been outstanding schools, and I would count UC Riverside among them—certainly ASU, Arizona State University, and just many, many others—that are not part of the AAU but are really distinctive, because what their goals are or what they're trying to do are important social, cultural goals. And the university is—it’s more than only how many Nobel Prize winning people you have on your faculty. Which is great. That’s great. We have to have universities like that, and it’s great to have that as an aspiration. But there’s so much that other universities have done to elevate people that are more widely distributed, to get them access and to elevate their goals, and that are just so incredibly important. And I think that Riverside and ASU are among them. So no. Riverside also—well, it’s more diverse than any of the other UC campuses, and I absolutely know for a fact what they say is true—that a number of students of color, Black students, Hispanic students that are accepted to some of the more research prestigious campuses—let’s take Berkeley as an example, or UCLA—actually make the choice to go to Riverside because they feel more comfortable there, that they can succeed. They are with more people that share their background and experiences —wow, we're having a real storm outside, which is just great [laugh]; we need the rain—that they feel that they can be successful and they will be nurtured, and people really care about their success. And I really found that in the professoriate—that even though they're interested, of course, in writing good research papers and being prominent and writing books and all, that the students came first, and they just paid a lot of attention to student success.

Zierler:

What was your greatest achievement at Riverside?

Córdova:

Oh, oh, oh. Hands down, it was launching the first new medical school in the country in over 40 years. Yeah. And I didn't stay, because you know, I was recruited to Purdue. I didn't stay to see it through. That was left to other very, very good hands, and absolutely essential. But I got the Regents to approve it. I got the other deans of the five prominent medical schools to support it. That was a major thing, because they could have been very sort of like, “Don’t tread on my donor turf or my patient turf” kind of thing. And they weren’t at all. I talked with them, I worked with them. Gerry Levy, dean of UCLA’s medical school, was marvelous. So all of that. Because when you're trying to do something that’s a little bit hard or expensive or needs a lot of support, just one big roadblock in your way can just set you back for a long time, or even for good. And that just didn't happen. People really, really helped. We made the case that the Inland Empire, as it was called, the Riverside-San Bernardino area, needed a public medical school for its four million people. We also made the case that all the doctors are [laugh] distributed along the coastlines on both sides of the country, and when you get inland, it gets thin. And also that the data show that most students stay where they do their residencies, and so if we could have a medical residency program—because that’s when they get married and have children and all that, so there’s an 80% chance that they'll stay there. And then the other fact that Michael Drake, who was very, very helpful—he was at UC San Francisco at the time—helped me with was that students of color that grow up in certain regions like to help people like those they grew up with — they like to help people with similar backgrounds. And so all of those pointed towards a need—helped us establish a case for – a medical school at UCR. Even the American Association of Medical Colleges’s president was extremely helpful. We had prominent speakers come and talk about the necessity of more medical schools in the inland part of the country and they made a good case for, especially, more primary care doctors.

Zierler:

Was your sense that Purdue recruited you primarily because of the medical school, because they were interested in your record of success in health sciences? Or was it a broader focus in terms of your expertise at that point?

Córdova:

I'm not sure. That certainly contributed towards it. They had never had a woman president. I don’t usually ask the question about why did you hire me. I just know I had a really successful interview with the trustees, and the student trustee and all.

Zierler:

What was your sense of what their overall strategic objectives were at Purdue? What were they looking for you to accomplish?

Córdova:

I think they wanted to be more research intensive, for sure. They wanted to have a little fresh blood, and a little different point of view. But they never really made it very clear, at least I didn't get a sense of it, of what it is that they really wanted. But I know that research was a big part of it.

Zierler:

And in what ways did you advance research at Purdue?

Córdova:

A lot. We got a lot of very, very big—some of the biggest—well, definitely some of the biggest grants that they had had to date in terms of size, and even diversity, led by people from minority backgrounds and women and all. At that time, I became PI for an NSF ADVANCE grant to advance women in the faculty at Purdue. I think the medical school, they were reaching out to figure out where they were—because IU of course has a great medical school—but where we could be really strong in the biomedical sciences. We just hit a bad time because of the whole depression—or recession, I guess you’d call it. I don’t know what you’d call 2008 and 2009, but budget-wise, it was challenging. So I was hired before that, in 2007, but then that happened, and so I really had to cope with a lot. It’s pretty noisy out there, isn’t it?

Zierler:

Oh, that’s hail. Wow.

Córdova:

[laugh] Yeah.

Córdova:

My husband says, “What the hail is going on out there?” Because it’s all hail! It’s just—it’s pretty intense.

Zierler:

So France, and then Washington beckons again, in 2009.

Córdova:

Yeah, yeah. I've kind of gone in and out, haven’t I? I've flipped in and out of government.

Zierler:

Now, the beginning of the Obama administration I assume was a very exciting time generally to be in Washington.

Córdova:

Yes, well, I wasn’t. I was at Purdue at that time, of course. I was asked to join the administration in the Department of Education. Nobody knows that, but I was. But I was too new to Purdue. That was just like a year in or something. And so Obama did come when he was campaigning, to our campus.

Zierler:

Oh, wow.

Córdova:

It was interesting. Because Purdue is a very conservative place, so they made me meet him in secret. [laugh]

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

Anyway, so I have a great picture from that and a great conversation. But they didn't want the alumni to get too riled up and all that. It’s a conservative place. Anyway, he was wonderful. I stayed at Purdue, and I joined a number of boards, and then I was asked to join the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, which has oversight of the whole of the Smithsonian. A relatively small board. And it has six congressmen and senators on it, which is very interesting. And the chief justice, John Roberts, is the chancellor of the board. So I did that. Trustees at Purdue weren’t very much enthralled with that because they didn't want me joining too many things. But I did that because I thought it was important. And then after two years, the Regents made me chair of the board. And then I guess the legislative people who were on the Board, the senators—Senator Leahy and there were a couple of others—Thad Cochran, Jack Reed—they all thought, as did the congressmen on the Board like Xavier Becerra and Doris Matsui—thought that I should be working more closely with the administration. So I think they proposed me to the White House, and the next thing I knew, the White House called me up, their Office of Personnel Management, and interviewed me about my background and asked what I would be interested in. And then they had me interview for two agencies, NSF and another one. And the other one would be the same level of position, like an undersecretary, but reporting to a secretary. And I just thought, especially after talking with John Holdren, Director of OSTP, that the NSF one offered more independence, running it yourself, reporting directly to the White House.

Zierler:

France, I want to ask you, at that moment here—I talk to physicists all the time, and almost everybody has a story about how the NSF provided them a grant at a pivotal point in their early career that like opened up the next thing. And so my question is, as an astrophysicist coming from that background, if you had that appreciation—if there was something close to you about what the NSF represented, at least in so far as physics were concerned. I wonder if that ever occurred to you in terms of thinking about the NSF and recognizing—I only speak from the vantage point of physics, of course, but recognizing the tremendously important role it has played in so many careers in advancing discovery and research for really decades and decades.

Córdova:

Yes. I think that’s a noble thought, David, but I have to be honest—I didn't have that thought until after I joined and found out, like you are doing through your talking with people, that that was true. I think I had just more the NASA experience, I have to say. I had been in that community of scientists and seen what NASA had done. I had the NSF ADVANCE grant, so I knew what they were doing for women there. And then of course at UC Santa Barbara and also UC Riverside, I could see what the grants were doing. And, well, Purdue, of course, as I said, we got some of our biggest grants from the NSF, but it just—it didn't strike me so much about the impact on individual investigators. See, I was focused on the big projects, because I thought in terms of big projects, of systems research, of facilities and experiments. And so I was just closer by background to the CERNs of the world and the big observatories and all. And so it didn't hit me until I joined NSF how important it was. Even people like Jennifer Doudna, who I got to be good friends with, would come up to me and say, “All of this all started with an NSF grant. I wouldn't be anywhere if I hadn’t gotten that first grant.” And lots of times, I've sat next to award winners—even recently with the new recipients of a big Irish award to Americans that have Irish heritage -- the MIT awardee I was sitting next to said, “Now I get all NIH funding, but it was really because of an NSF grant that I got started, and now I'm getting many awards.” So you're absolutely right, but I just didn’t know that until I started working with the agency.

Zierler:

So the Obama administration of course was known to be very pro-science, right? But that’s sort of just like a headline generality. I wonder how you might contextualize that in a very day-to-day context in terms of what it meant to work in science policy for the Obama administration?

Córdova:

Well, yeah, it was interesting. There was a disparity between the enthusiasm for science policy and public-private engagement, and the Congressional funding. If you look at our budgets at that time, we were just flat, flat, and we couldn't seem to get out of that mode . We also were affected by sequestration during the Obama administrations , and that was limiting our budget flexibility. In contrast, in the last few years Congress has become more supportive of the science agencies, and NSF has seen budget increases.

Zierler:

Now, in terms of the chain of command, whom did you report to?

Córdova:

Well, technically, the NSF director reports to the President. It’s an appointment by the president and NSF is an independent agency. But on a day-to-day basis, John Holdren, the President’s Science Adviser and Director of OSTP. And then, in late 2016 until early 2019 there was no John, of course, and there was no Kelvin yet. And so for two years, I reported to myself. [laugh]

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

No, truly. And I also represented the country in various places where the OSTP director would have, like at G7 meetings, science meetings, and so on. Ministerials and all that. I really represented the U.S. science voice. Michael Kratsios, then Deputy U.S. Technology Officer, took more of the technology piece, and I took the science piece. And so that’s how we divided it up when representing the U.S. abroad in S&T venues. Michael was a great person to work with. Really, really enjoyed it.

Zierler:

What was your involvement with climate change policy?

Córdova:

Well, I'm not a climate scientist, of course, but I very much care about planet Earth. And I was very—I worked a lot with John Holdren on his—to understand his thinking through his talks and his writings, and just talking with him when I had questions, to really understand his messages and his arguments, to make sure that I internalized them, so that when I was asked questions, whether it was in a Congressional hearing or in our budget narratives, I would know about that. And I thought NSF should do its part by continuing to fund climate and related science. Actually, anything you do in the geosciences is related to the climate, because it’s all one big Earth system. And the Geosciences is one of our biggest—next to math and physical sciences -- directorates at NSF. We wanted to sustain, even encourage growth of that funding. I liked to say that the differences between working in the two administrations are not great when it comes to funding basic research. As far as NSF was concerned, our funding profile didn't really change a lot. There were a couple of things that made a difference to all programs, like more Congressional funding in the last few years, and our Big Ideas program, which took us in some newer directions. Our Convergence Accelerator, those kind of things. But basically, as far as what scientists call the core, we still funded that at about the same level. I like to say that it was really the messaging about priorities of the administrations that was the difference. Because the two administrations had very different ways that they would talk about what was important to them in science. Nobody told us not to fund something, OK? We just kept right on with the programs that the NSF leadership had established. Our priorities have always been influenced by studies of the National Academy, by their decadal reports, by other scientific input, and by discoveries themselves. What mattered was getting additional funding and moving all fields forward.

Zierler:

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about managing that transition, that presidential transition in 2016. From the outside, it might have appeared to be dramatic, but I wonder, from your perspective, in terms of the day to day, if it really did not change things that much.

Córdova:

No, it didn't. It didn’t change things that much. As I said, I had personally more to do, because some of the things were given to me to do or lead that usually OSTP leadership might have done. I ended up co-chairing a lot of NTSC committees because I was the person with the history of how the NSTC worked. Most of the other members were newly appointed to their positions. The work that we did as an agency didn't really change. We were careful how we talked about them, which only makes common sense. It’s not that we're putting a damper on anything. It’s just that when you are an executive branch agency like NSF, you need to follow the lead of the administration. And so when they would say that this is important to them—well, it was fortuitous that the things they chose to focus on were things that we were already focused on. You know, our Big Ideas came out as a platform in May of 2016, so that was before the November election. And several of those ideas, the ones to do with artificial intelligence and quantum research and the workforce development, the future of work, were ones that—and everything to do with harnessing the data revolution, of course—were ones that the new administration just really picked up on. So in a way it’s just more like learning some new words in your vocabulary to use. Like “industries of the future” would be a good set of words.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

And there’s nothing wrong with that, you know? I mean, NSF has been, for 70 years, about the industries of the future. We just start way back in the past and work up to the future. Yeah, so I wouldn't say that all that much changed. It was just very quiet at the White House for a couple years. You know, we were used to—the Obama administration under John Holdren’s leadership was—they were going really fast, and they had a lot for us to do and be engaged in. We used to say—we just had lots of hats on at the same time, running around like crazy, trying to do this under their umbrella, because it was something they wanted to get out and get done and everything. So all of that just went way, way down. And as I said, if it weren’t for Michael Kratsios coming in there—and he had a vision about technology and how important that is in providing tools. He also wanted to limit administrative burden, regulatory burdens of all kinds. And we were in principle in favor of that. I mean, who wouldn't be, when you see all the various challenges that we face, and how sometimes we get in the way of ourselves trying to address them. So I think that was good, and we were busy, but I would say not nearly as busy. And then Kelvin comes in, a year plus a bit ago, and Kelvin is, again, a big fire engine, and he’s got all lights ablaze, and he has a lot of directions that he wants to go. And he was well known to the NSF, because he was vice chair of our board for four years, and I worked with him for six years on the National Science Board. So that was all—it was a familiar style, and we were eager to work with him. So I think even though there are transitions, it wasn’t like a Heaviside function, a big step function. It was just kind of a—you know, just a rolling transition.

Zierler:

So France, I have to ask you—it’s the big question on everyone’s mind with regard to science and federal policy, and that is, when did pandemics really get on your radar at the NSF in terms of the kinds of things that needed to be supported because of the emerging threats and the people that were talking about the importance of funding them?

Córdova:

Well, David, to give a definitive response, I would have to just go back through my emails. But it seems to me that—well in—towards the middle to the end of January, we were kind of—our focus was all turned towards our February 6th event to celebrate the 70th birthday of the National Science Foundation. And we had invited and for the first time were coming together all the previous directors of NSF, OK? And that was a very big deal. One, at the last minute, got ill, John Slaughter, and couldn't come, but all of the others came. And what struck us—and we knew that there was this—disease—it wasn’t called a pandemic yet—that was in China. It had hit Italy. And it was just kind of a matter of time before it was going to hit us. So I remember one of the directors—I won’t tell you which one, just to respect privacy—said that he was going to come because he thought the event was very important, but he was going to hire his own plane. At his own expense, of course. Everybody paid for their own way to come, because of the virus. And I remember I was just thinking, “Wow.” I mean, he was a very smart guy. All of those past ones were. And that’s kind of a big statement. And he had to make that plan something like the third week of January, which was—you know, it just really, really struck me, like a lightbulb kind of glowing.

Zierler:

“This is for real.”

Córdova:

Yeah. “This is really for real, that this person is that concerned about it.” And then as we proceeded through February, it just kind of got worse, and we started talking about spinning up our RAPIDs program. You know we've had this RAPIDs program—it means that we get in these proposals, and we quickly review them. We review them in-house unless we think that it’s so off the wall that there’s a particular expertise that’s needed, and then we invite someone for an external review. But usually the whole idea is to get them out the door really quickly because they're responding to emergencies. So we did those in the case of Katrina and Maria, and you know, earthquakes, floods, all kinds of things. Ebola. Zika. We funded RAPIDs. And we also have another program called EEID,—the Emergence and Epidemiology of Infectious Disease. And so we thought we should start inviting more proposals for those two programs, RAPID and EEID, given this coronavirus that was affecting other countries and was predicted to head our way. So we were putting together these solicitations for these programs. And I would have to look at my notes as to when, but probably I'm sure—in fact I'm positive, because I've looked at it—they're on the NSF.gov website—up at the top, it says “coronavirus” and if you click on that, you can see everything. But those, they actually came out like a month after we started developing them, the solicitations.

So our whole view was that we're not a biomedical agency, we're not a CDC—although we were already getting requests from the CDC to use some of our computational power through the supercomputers that we fund at universities, to utilize those. So we were doing some of that. And so we just thought our particular space was that anybody who thought they had something to bring to the table should give us proposals, and unless we definitely thought they belonged somewhere else, like NIH, that we would fund them. Because we do a lot of computational stuff. We do a lot of NCAR stuff. You know, prediction and evolution, the dispersion of diseases.. And studies like the original work that Jennifer Doudna was doing on cellular structure and mechanisms. And also in the engineering domain, the stuff like JPL just did on inventing a new ventilator. Those are things we could see NSF also doing. So we have a lot of space in which we can fund proposals that are unique and are not NIH-like. So we were getting ready to do that through the end of—I would say the last couple weeks of February and first couple of weeks of March. And then when Congress started making sounds that they were going to be giving some extra funding, we just started putting together our request—and that was way before I left, a few weeks—we started putting together our case that would go through OMB and on to Congress, that said how we would use extra funding—we were going to fund anyway, at a certain level, but we said with this many millions more, then we could fund all this other kind of research. And we were successful in that, as you know. In the CARES Act, we got $76 million more to fund these kinds of proposals.

Zierler:

France, I want to ask you, just in our remaining time, just a few more sort of forward-looking questions. To bring it right up to the present, obviously we're in a crisis of both science policy and science communication, with regard to coronavirus, in terms of how science is going to get us out of this, and more broadly, how scientists and science interfaces with the American public. So looking beyond coronavirus, in your decades of experience in science policy and planning, I wonder, what are your thoughts on how we can use this crisis to strengthen our society? When we come out on the other side of it, what lessons should we learn so that we're in a better position both in terms of our ability to respond to new threats and also in terms of our ability or scientists’ ability to keep the public informed in as productive and useful a way as possible?

Córdova:

Well, we've learned a lot. The biggest thing that we've learned, that has been reinforced in the public’s view, I think, is the importance of science. I've been so pleased to hear governors say, when people have asked if they would reopen their states and allow for more flexibilities, and they said, “We're going to let science lead us to an answer there.” So there’s much more of a respect for the position that science has in understanding the origins, understanding the evolution, understanding the spread, understanding the treatments, cures, and possible prevention. And I think a next step is the public willingness to fund what I would call a public good rather than like a company good, which is being prepared for the future. Because most companies don’t invest in the future, unless it’s a very near-term future. And so it has to be governments, federal and state governments, that agree that this is an investment worth making. So I think that is already very definitely in the public consciousness. And it’s up to scientists to get out of their [laugh] focused wormholes and realize that this is a very opportune time to think about how they would do that. It’s not a question of can they do it. Absolutely, they can do it. It’s a question usually of timescale. I was impressed by—Rita Colwell has written a new book. I got to read a draft copy, because I was asked to write a little blurb on the back of it. So a few weeks ago, I read it. And she talks about her whole life. It’s sort of like the interview we're having—but her whole life. And she talks about the anthrax thing. And I hadn’t realized that it took like between six and seven years to really identify, through genomics, the laboratory where that was actually made—I mean, they had good enough science they could actually pinpoint where that strain that was in that envelopes and stuff, what lab and what person was doing it. We have the tools to answer questions about the origin and evolution of COVID-19. The question is [laugh]—if you've got a toolbox—like my husband has a big toolbox out in the garage—you know, you gotta use it, right? You gotta use the toolbox. There’s my husband right there. I'm talking about you. [laugh] PERSON: I heard that!

Córdova:

[laugh] Close the door. [laugh]

Zierler:

It’s only good things.

Córdova:

[laugh] So Harold Varmus wrote this wonderful article—I guess you probably read it—

Zierler:

Yeah, I saw it.

Córdova:

And actually I really resonated—and I sent a note to Harold—we're good friends—this morning about it. But it resonated with me because I gave a talk at the APS, their virtual conference, a few weeks ago, and they asked me to talk about the challenges we face. And I said the biggest one is how to take advantage of what we know and how to be prepared, how to have some way of being prepared for the future that we absolutely can envision. And we're not so far off from that. Lots of things about this have been predicted, and not only in science fiction movies. I've been to a number of Davos conferences where people have talked about pandemics, about what’s the worst thing that could happen on the planet, and all that. So not a surprise. It shouldn't catch us off guard. And so Harold, of course, talked about setting up some kind of a federal agency, again for the reason we just mentioned, that industry is not going to pay for this kind of thing for a future public good. But the question of how to be prepared for disasters is the big question. And there’s a lot of other disasters that could come our way, including climate change, and natural disasters, earthquakes and floods and such, that we could be much better prepared for. But we're not too good at organizing around the future…that has not been the sweet spot of scientists.

Zierler:

And that’s an opportunity right there.

Córdova:

Yeah.

Zierler:

France, I've got two more questions. One is retrospective, and then one is looking toward the future. The retrospective one is, the through line in all of your leadership positions is that the starting point is that you're an astrophysicist, right? And I want to ask you, in what ways, if at all, does that world view or that way of thinking about things, as a physicist, how has that influenced your leadership style and the way that you go about handling these incredibly complex institutions and budgets?

Córdova:

Well, I ask a lot of questions, and I'm not just satisfied with glib answers. So I think that’s one way. I like to see things that are laid out as strategies and think about, what’s the goal, what’s the timetable, what are the steps to get there, where’s the budget. You know, how’s that going to come, how is it going to be sustained. So I think in a more systems approach to things. I have an ear for both ideas and people. Folks say that I'm good at selecting people for jobs, so there must be something in me that resonates with some kind of authenticity of a person and their capability, even if they don’t have—because I'm like that—even if they don’t have all the background and the tools, but just that they have the instincts, and they know how to get the resources that they need to do the job. And even if they're completely—I mean, some of the people I picked for jobs at NSF, had very little practical experience doing what I appointed them to do, but I had a very good sense that they would work out well in that job. And they did. Those are some of the things that I think I bring to management and leadership.

Zierler:

Looking to the future, in your capacity as a physicist, as an educational leader, as a leader in science policy, what are you most optimistic and excited about?

Córdova:

Oh. [pause] I guess I'm naturally optimistic. I guess anybody in my positions would be optimistic. I see a lot of creativity all around me. I'm most excited about the thing I learned from being a student and then being kind of in charge of students, is that all the best ideas are resident in our youth. They just have an extraordinary grasp and a way of simplifying things to denominators that are particularly useful without complicating everything that’s done and thinking of all the roadblocks and the hazards and such. They have a more direct line of sight to the future. So I've been very impressed with young people. I'm very impressed with this generation. But when I think back on it, I've been impressed with every young generation that I've been in contact with at the university. I just have a lot of optimism about that. I think that we will—there’s a lot of resilience in human nature, and I do think that there’s just loads of skills and talents that people don’t even know they have until they're called on to do something important.

Zierler:

And for young people that are in college or just starting to think about charting a career, and now dealing with the situation that we find ourselves in, what kind of advice would you give to them, as they look forward to their own futures? Very uncertain futures.

Córdova:

Yes, yes, very uncertain. But throughout history, we've been confronted with uncertain futures, and there have been many different big trials that people and their families have been faced with. I think they have, as I say, more skills than they think they have. The commencement speech that I just gave, and that I'll unfortunately have to redo tomorrow morning, because they said the lighting wasn’t correct, but—

Zierler:

[laugh]

Córdova:

—is about that you collect knowledge along the way as you go, and even if the knowledge that you're collecting seems kind of useless or irrelevant at the time, like, “What am I going to do with this? Why am I learning that?”—and I have many examples in my own life—they all turn out to be very useful things in your backpack for later on. And our own set of knowledge, our own backpacks, makes us unique contributors when we confront crises. So I think that’s very encouraging for students to hear. I guess one of the things that I would maybe do a little bit differently is I've always been very focused on scientific problems and on, well, in my case, the passion for the stars, but somebody else’s passion could be for rocks and minerals or the ocean. But it’s that we also have a responsibility to have passion for humanity and the planet that we live on. And that no matter what we do, even if it’s very narrowly focused, we also have to have one ear out and one eye open to our larger place in the world we live in, and think about what role that our particular skill sets can help to lighten that, to make it a better pathway for people. It could be as simple as just communicating what we do in better ways to folks so that they can enjoy that as much as we do. But it could also be in more practical ways that elevate the benefits to people and their well-being.

Zierler:

France, it has been an honor speaking with you. I want to thank you so much for sharing your insights and experience and wisdom with me. I really appreciate our time together.

Córdova:

Thank you, David.

[End]