NASA JPL Launches First Female Leader – Outlook Pasadena

First published in the September 8 print issue of Pasadena Outlook.

After its founding 86 years ago, the stars finally aligned at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to welcome its first female leader, Director Laurie Leshin.
As JPL’s tenth director, the appointment was also described as a homecoming for Leshin, who earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in geochemistry from Caltech, the JPL operator on behalf of NASA and where she is also vice-president. .
“It’s a tremendous privilege to lead such an incredible and storied organization like this, which drives so much innovation and discovery for people around the world, which in itself is amazing,” Leshin said, sitting down to discuss his new role. “Being the first woman is special because I know representation matters. And the outpouring of support I’ve received – from everyone at JPL, but especially the women – has been truly inspiring.
An internationally acclaimed scientist whose career has spanned academia and leadership positions at NASA and included two White House appointments, Leshin has been praised for her groundbreaking leadership in the space industry and the community. scholar as well as for his achievements as a distinguished geochemist and space scientist. scientific.
She recently served as president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one of the nation’s oldest private STEM universities – also as the first female helmsman.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Laurie Leshin (middle) takes a selfie with lab workers on her first day at the helm in mid-May. Being the organization’s first female leader is just one of the ways Leshin is breaking down barriers, with many lofty goals on the way. |Photo courtesy of NASA JPL

There’s even an asteroid named after Leshin, who soon realized: “It’s not going to hit Earth,” she laughed. “That’s the most important thing. But really, it was quite an honor…it might be the coolest thing about me. I don’t think this list of cool things about me is very long actually, but it’s cool.
Leshin arrived at JPL’s 168-acre campus in May with great enthusiasm. Her female cohorts, along with a few males, spearheaded the creation of a 144-square quilt that hangs nearly wall to wall. Each square was quilted, woven or knitted, many with hidden messages, like the one in Braille that says “The stars are calling and we must go”, and a portrait of his mother, to whom Leshin credited his inspiration. The larger “JPL” is sported in red all over the background in an Escher-like code.
“They did it in a very JPL way; there were engineering documents that came with it being made and how it would all fit together,” Leshin said, laughing to his creative colleagues.
Another wall decoration, one of the first to go up in his office, is a copy of President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University, which was given to Leshin by Caroline Kennedy. In the speech, JFK stirs up an ecstatic crowd as he details the space race, the mission to the moon, and America’s chance to be at the forefront.
Leshin read the text enthusiastically, playfully mimicking JFK’s New England accent: “We chose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
It is Leshin’s business card, bringing together history, present and future for the great beyond, bearing responsibility for generational investment in space exploration at the laboratory, ongoing missions as well as upcoming assignments.
“Space exploration is the ultimate long-term business. It’s generational,” she said. [James Webb] telescope… people have been waiting for this day for 25 years. And when you think Voyager is on the outskirts of our solar system, it was launched 45 years ago.
One of the biggest upcoming missions will be the Mars Sample Return launch in 2028, retrieving rock cores from the Perseverance Rover, which is currently collecting samples from ancient craters and river deltas. This will be the first time a robot has traveled to Mars and returned successfully.
“No one has ever done this, never even tried,” she said.
Leshin has a thing for Mars, a planet that has fascinated her since she was a child when she saw Time magazine photos of the planet from the Viking Landers in the mid-1970s.
“The images stopped me in my tracks. I just wanted to reach out and touch those rocks,” she recalled. “I grew up in Phoenix, so there was something about the desert landscape of Mars that spoke to me.”
But her path to becoming a geochemist and space scientist was unclear: She majored in chemistry at Arizona State University before spotting an advert for an internship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. With encouragement from ASU’s only female astronomy professor, she got the job and “it changed my life. It was like being struck by lightning in the best possible way.
Remembering the teacher who gave up on everything at all times fueled Leshin’s passion for education, STEM and collaborations with students, she said. She devotes time to JPL interns and frequently greets them with motivational speeches.
“As educators, and the same is true in the space sector as leaders, you have the potential to really change the trajectory of someone’s life just by saying ‘yes’ when they knock on the door. “, she added.
His passion for nurturing the next generation of space scientists transitions into the new era of diversity, equity and inclusion, ensuring that students from all backgrounds can have the opportunities that have given him been given. Currently, approximately 30% of JPL’s workforce is female, with the technical workforce falling in the low 20% range.
“We still have to work on that… We have to make sure that we align our actions with our values. It’s really important to me,” she said.
As part of this effort, Leshin appointed the Lab’s first director of inclusion, making the position a member of JPL’s executive council, along with other leadership positions.
“Inclusion is a core value for us, and I can’t think of a policy or governance topic that doesn’t touch on issues of equity and inclusion,” she recently told employees. “This step is part of our broader effort to honor the diverse voices that define this exceptional community of explorers and innovators.”
Leshin, referring to the gratitude she feels for all the women and men who came before her at NASA and JPL, added, “We will continue the quest to get all the great minds involved so as we explore the frontiers of space.”

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