Laurie Leshin, PhD, is the first woman director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Her role at JPL also includes serving as Vice President and Bren Professor at the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA. She will continue as co-investigator for two instruments on NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover.
Dr. Leshin joined JPL from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), where she served as president from 2014 to 2022. She also previously served as dean of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s School of Science and held multiple roles during her first stint at NASA, including as Deputy Associate Administrator of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.
She received NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal and Distinguished Public Service Medal. She was also honored by the Meteoritical Society with the Nier Prize for outstanding research by a scientist under the age of 35, and the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after her.
President Barack Obama appointed Dr. Leshin to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum advisory board, and she advised President George W. Bush on space policy. She holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Arizona State University (ASU) and master’s and doctoral degrees in geochemistry from Caltech.
Congratulations on being a groundbreaker! What has it meant for you to be the first woman in key leadership roles at WPI and at JPL? Are there unique challenges that women leaders face?
You face more scrutiny, but I have also received incredible support in being the first woman in top leadership, at JPL especially, but also at WPI. The outpouring of love and joy from the women at JPL has been extraordinary. You have the spotlight turned on you a bit more, but at the same time, you receive more support.
At JPL, women make up slightly more than 30% of the workforce. We just exceeded 2,000 women for the first time. We are working to bring more women into technical and leadership roles, as well as to increase diversity. This is part of our new Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) plan that we recently rolled out.
Why is DEIA a priority for you? What steps have you taken in your career to improve this issue? Are you planning to take similar steps at JPL?
My view is that we need all the brains because STEM is essential for the future leadership of our nation and for humans to thrive around the world. In general, there are not enough people studying STEM or pursuing it as a career to address all the challenges that we face. My goal is to ensure that anyone with an interest in impacting humanity positively through STEM has a path to do so. We also need to promote more women into leadership positions.
In academia, I focused on increasing the percentage of women students joining classes. A lack of women is still a challenge at technological STEM institutions, and we successfully worked to change that at WPI.
I also focused on increasing the diversity of the faculty by advancing women. We found that at WPI, the way promotions were made was not well aligned with our institutional values. We changed the faculty promotion and tenure processes by working to align the basis of our assessments with the values of the institution, but without compromising the quality of the school. We managed to dramatically increase the percentage of women promoted to full professor at a STEM institution.
At JPL, we are focused on reducing systemic barriers to the advancement of women. We have wonderful employee resource groups that focus on all aspects of diversity in our workforce. For example, we are aware of the inherent differences in how women and men approach promotion and job openings. Some women might feel that they are not a good fit because they have only eight out of ten of the requirements for a job, but a little encouragement will persuade them to reconsider. So the women in the laboratory have what we call the TapRoom Initiative: we stay on the lookout for job openings, and when we see positions open up, we alert our women colleagues, in effect, “tapping” them on the shoulder to encourage them to apply.
We need to overcome the unintended barriers that are built into our systems so that we can work more effectively from within and work to change them over time.
What else do you hope to accomplish at JPL? What unique perspective do you bring to your role, and what is your leadership philosophy?
The work of JPL runs on a framework based on three areas: succeed, seed, and lead.
Succeed, as you might guess, is all about a mission’s success. Our work includes landing amazing rovers on Mars, missions to Jupiter’s moons, developing incredible earth observatories, looking for planets around other stars, and extending astrophysics. We tend to do the things that are one of a kind, or the first of a kind, at the leading edge of space exploration. Making sure that we succeed on our missions is the first job, but we are always looking at what comes next.
Our Seed area invests in and creates new technology and capabilities to drive missions in the future. This may include advanced computing for new ways of processing massive amounts of data onboard a satellite, or methods of sampling the plumes of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, to detect whether there could be life inside an ocean underneath its icy shell.
Lead is a bigger area for us. JPL was the birthplace of America’s first satellite. We are the original space company and have led the way for many years, but the space ecosystem is dramatically changing. Leadership for the next decade means leading by example, through focusing on DEIA; partnering with fledgling, upcoming space companies; and determining how we can help advance the industry for the future. It is an exciting moment to be here.
The theme of this issue of AWIS Magazine is sustainability and innovation. How does the work at JPL and NASA support sustainability here on Earth?
We have a huge portfolio of science missions that aim to drive our understanding of how Earth is changing and to help improve the work of those on the frontlines fighting the changes and also adapting to them. For instance, we are trying to put actionable data in the hands of firefighters about where the next wildfires will most likely occur. We also have an instrument on the space station that detects methane super emitters. The most impactful thing we can do [to help the planet] is to reduce methane emissions. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas that has a relatively short residence time in the atmosphere. The atmosphere recovers quickly if we stop emitting methane (and not so quickly when we try to eradicate carbon dioxide). We have detected fifty methane super emitters around the world, and we are sharing data publicly and following up on it to move methane reduction efforts to the next level. Our space-born imaging spectrometer, which is providing data for mapping dust and soil composition, as well as methane across the globe, was featured in a CNN article, “NASA is mapping dust storms from space using new high-tech device,” published on February 20, 2023.
We have developed technologies for capturing images of distant galaxies that now have applications in medical imaging on earth. Additional spin-off applications for NASA have included a low-cost ventilator developed during covid that has been used all over the world. We have also invented search and rescue technology that we have commercialized, and we sent it to Turkey after the recent earthquake. This is all space-based technology that is applied on earth to make life better.
Earlier in your career, in 2001, you were named the Dee and John Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences at ASU, and you led the development of the first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary School of Earth and Space Exploration at the university. What inspired you to take on this mission?
I truly believe that the most important problems require multiple perspectives and disciplines to solve, and sometimes the organizational structures—which I call cylinders of excellence—get in the way of taking on bigger things. So, when ASU was undergoing a rebirth under a new president, Michael Crow, he and I hatched the plan to create the School of Earth and Space Exploration. I led the committee that did it, and now ten years later, I can say that it has been extraordinarily successful. This goes to show that when you think differently about fundamental structures of organizations, you can drive change.
Our big innovation was to incorporate systems engineering, to pull the different sciences together, and to see what emerged. It is what we do at JPL. In flying Mars rovers, we gather multidisciplinary teams across all fields of engineering and science, and then we ask systems engineers to work on integrating these disciplines. Our efforts require interdisciplinary teams: that’s how the world works these days.
While at ASU, you were appointed by President Bush to serve on the Commission for the Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, which called for a transformation in the nation’s approach to space exploration. How did you transition from academia to government work?
I was on a very traditional academic path straight through graduate school, a postdoctorate, laboratory and teaching work, and tenure, but I was also clearly interested in larger-scale issues and challenges. The transition to space policy started with one of my predecessors at JPL, who recognized me as a young scientist with a contribution to make. He then invited me to a meeting with a NASA administrator, and it was from that meeting that I was appointed to the presidential commission. So, I learned that networking and taking advantage of nontraditional opportunities are important.
The work on the commission gave me great experience. There were nine of us, and I was the youngest. The experience really made me feel the limits of the ivory tower of academia for the first time, because up until then, I had only worked in that world. Colleagues on the commission who had worked in multiple sectors acknowledged that I had a lot of smart ideas but advised me to broaden my experience if I wanted to take it to the next level. It was good advice: six months later, when NASA advertised for positions, I gave up my tenure and joined the agency. After six years, I returned to academia and rose to leadership there. It has been very valuable to get experience in multiple sectors, see how different kinds of organizations work and operate, and then have that moment of courage to take the leap.
With your vast experience in academia, in teaching, and in leadership, what do you consider to be your most important career achievement and what is your next goal?
I am not very good at predicting where I am headed. The world is changing so fast these days, so it is difficult for anyone to predict where they will be in the next fifteen years.
My most important career achievement hasn’t happened yet. It will be our next Mars mission. This work is what drew me to JPL. The mission will be hardest robotic mission ever attempted, the first round trip to Mars. A rocket will be sent to pick up a set of sample tubes containing little rock cores that our Mars Rovers are collecting, and bring them back to Earth. I love all of our missions at JPL but this is one I’ve personally been working toward for 25 years, so to be here and to help it finally come to fruition will be a great career achievement for me.
Can you describe your experiences as a student? What drew you to study chemistry and earth sciences? Do you have any advice for women currently working or studying in these fields?
I became a chemistry major because I had a fabulous professor at ASU who inspired me. I had always loved space, but it had not occurred to me that I could have a job in this field. My move to the earth sciences started after interning with geology students at NASA. I saw a flyer for the summer internship when I was a 19-year-old sophomore at ASU and in a moment of courage, I coldcalled the only woman professor I knew of in the physical sciences. She was an astronomer who did not know me. She dropped what she was doing, invited me in, and half an hour later was calling NASA to advocate for me.
I often remind faculty that they have the ability, in one meeting, to change the life of a young person. The attraction of a university job is that you have the chance to support young people in ways that are life changing for them. At the end of the internship at NASA, I knew that I had to study geology if I wanted to go into planetary science.
What is the best advice you have ever given or received?
Give yourself some grace: we are not always perfect. We invite others to rise once we show our imperfections, rather than trying to project that we have it all together.
Also, pursue interesting opportunities that come along, wherever they arise and whenever it makes sense to do so. Some of the best things that have happened in my career have come out of unexpected emails.
Last but not least, my friend Sally Ride used to say: “Break all the rules but stay on the team.” It is good to push the system, but if you push it so far that you find yourself outside of it, it is harder to make any changes. Push, but figure out a way to do it so that you stay on the team.
Mary Tibezinda is an Assistant Lecturer and Doctoral candidate in the Department of Agricultural Production, College of Agricultural Sciences, Makerere University, Uganda. She previously worked first in Agricultural extension and then Agricultural Research. Her goal is to be an inspiration to her students. Tibezinda is a member of the East African Reawakened Fellowship where she loves attending the fellowship gatherings and enjoys reading.
This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.