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France Córdova becomes Purdue University's president.


The career of France Córdova, the new president of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, was hardly the product of planning. Lacking scientific mentors, she majored in English at Stanford. She pursued anthropology, journalism and education, but wasn't satisfied with any of them.

A television special on neutron stars, after Neil Armstrong's historic visit to the Moon, changed her life by sparking an interest in astrophysics. She contacted the scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who were featured in the programme and got a summer job in their lab — which led to a graduate studentship in astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology, and on to a PhD.

Córdova was attracted to high-energy astrophysics because the field was ripe for discovery. "I was in the vanguard of a small group of students proposing to do multi-wavelength observations to observe cosmic bodies of interest," she says. She then made the seminal discovery — soft X-ray pulsations from a class of close binary stars — that garnered her multiple job offers.

A permanent job at Los Alamos National Laboratory gave her ten years to start her career without having to move on to the next postdoc. Eager to be around students once more, she then accepted an offer to head Pennsylvania State University's department of astronomy and astrophysics. NASA administrator Dan Goldin would eventually select her to be the agency's first female chief scientist.

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Last Updated: May 4, 2016 3:04 PM

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