NASA veteran to become JPL’s first woman director

A Caltech graduate and NASA veteran becomes the new director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

Laurie Leshin, the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, will take on the role of director in May, officials announced Thursday. She succeeds Michael Watkins, who retired in August, and Lt. Gen. Larry James, who is currently serving as interim director.

Leshin will be JPL’s first female director. She also becomes vice president of Caltech, which runs the lab for NASA.

Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum said Leshin was selected for her track record of leading complex organizations, strategic thinking, dedication to people and “her ability to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

Leshin said that innovation, technology and exploration will be among their top priorities. These include efforts to collect and return samples of Martian soil to look for evidence of past life on the red planet, as well as a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa to see if it is suitable for life.

The lab will also continue its Earth-centric missions aimed at understanding and mitigating the effects of climate change.

“LA is a land of inspiration, and JPL’s missions inspire people every day,” she said in an interview Friday, noting that Southern California is a cradle of space exploration, rocketry and the aerospace industry. “California is the place to be if you want to be a space explorer – especially Southern California.”

This will not be her first stint at NASA. Previously, she held two senior positions at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where she worked on more than 50 projects. She also spent time at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, where her portfolio included human spaceflight and finding ways to send astronauts deeper into the solar system.

Laurie Leshin, second from left, celebrates the landing of the Curiosity rover with members of the science teams at JPL.

Laurie Leshin, second from left, celebrates the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2012 with other members of the science teams at JPL. Leshin is a co-investigator on two of the rover’s instruments.


Leshin said her entire career helped prepare her to lead JPL, including her experience on unsuccessful NASA missions, such as the Mars Polar Lander mission in 1999. Then she was a cosmochemist at Arizona State University ready to search for water and ice using a stationary progenitor of today’s Mars rovers, but the lander never made contact and most likely crashed on arrival.

“All of those things have taught me great lessons,” she said.

Leshin has strong ties to the region, having earned her masters and doctorate in geochemistry from Caltech and then completing a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA.

After working at ASU and NASA, she joined Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY in 2011 as Dean of the School of Science and then became President of WPI in 2014. She also held two positions in the White House.

“DR. Laurie Leshin has the track record of scholarship and leadership necessary to serve as Director of JPL and solidify the center’s status as a world leader in the 21st century,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

For Leshin, returning to JPL — and Southern California — feels like a homecoming.

A self-proclaimed “Rose Parade nerd,” she said she and her husband, astrophysicist Jon Morse, will likely end up in Pasadena with their corgi and tabby cat. A native of Arizona, she’s excited to swap the snow of Massachusetts for views of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Being the first woman to lead the lab “only makes the honor even greater,” she said, noting that she received “a lot of warm reactions” from women at JPL after the announcement. Some have even made them a congratulations Spotify playlist with songs like “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyoncé.

“Representation is important,” Leshin said. “I will do my best to make JPL a place where everyone can thrive. We need all minds to solve the really tough space exploration challenges and get to a place where everyone can contribute to this bold mission.”

According to their 2020 annual report, approximately 31% of JPL employees are women.

Leshin listed Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, as a friend and heroine and said she has a LEGO version of Ride on her desk.

She also recalled attending National Organization for Women meetings with her mother in the 1970s. At the time, the group was working to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

“There were all these women standing on their chairs and making a lot of noise about expanding the role of women in leadership and society,” Leshin said. “I was too young then to understand why these women do it. But they did it so I could do it. And I take this connection to the shoulders I stand on very seriously.” NASA veteran to become JPL’s first woman director

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