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From ASU to the stars

The meteoric rise of ASU alumna and former faculty Laurie Leshin continues with new appointment to lead JPL

Portrait of former ASU faculty and alumna Laurie Leshin.
January 28, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

An Arizona State University alumna and former faculty member has taken the helm of the nation’s mission control center for space exploration. Laurie Leshin, the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has been named the new director of the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), a federally-funded research and development center managed by the California Institute of Technology for NASA.

“Laurie is a great intellectual leader and will reshape JPL into the place, with its academic and industrial partners, that will open new horizons for our species throughout the solar system, and new knowledge and insights throughout the universe,” ASU President Michael Crow said. “This is a tremendous appointment.”  

Leshin will formally assume her position on May 16, succeeding Michael Watkins, who retired in August 2021, and Lt. Gen. Larry D. James USAF (Ret.), who currently serves as JPL interim director.

“Laurie Leshin stood out in an exhaustive international search because of her profound commitment to people, her strategic approach to scientific and technological opportunities, her deep appreciation of NASA’s leadership in space exploration and earth science, her mastery of complex organizations, and her ability to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers,” said Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “We are so pleased to be able to welcome Laurie back to campus and to JPL.”

The seeds of Leshin’s latest success were planted at ASU. She graduated summa cum laude with an undergraduate degree in chemistry from ASU in 1987. In 1996, she was the inaugural recipient of the Meteoritical Society's Nier Prize, awarded for outstanding research in meteoritics or planetary science by a scientist younger than the age of 35.

“On behalf of the entire Academic Enterprise, I congratulate Laurie on this exciting appointment to lead JPL,” said Nancy Gonzales, executive vice president and university provost. “Our goal is to graduate excellent students who are enabled to make impact through their careers. Laurie’s contributions as an ASU student and scholar represent the best of ASU and our goals as an academic community.”

Congratulations, @LaurieofMars! She’s not only an amazing planetary scientist, she’s also been an incredible friend & mentor. Looking forward to her leadership of @NASAJPL during this exciting time for exploration of the Solar System & beyond! #onwardsandupwards

— Meenakshi (Mini) Wadhwa (@minwadhwa) January 27, 2022

After earning her master's degree and PhD in geochemistry from the California Institute of Technology, Leshin returned to her Tempe roots to become an assistant professor at ASU from 1998 to 2005.

In 2001, she became the Dee and John Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences at ASU. In 2003, she became the director of ASU's Center for Meteorite Studies (now the ASU Buseck Center for Meteorite Studies), which houses one of the largest university-based meteorite collection in the world. The International Astronomical Union recognized her contributions to planetary science with the naming of asteroid 4922 Leshin.

At ASU, she also helped develop the new School of Earth and Space Exploration, combining earth, planetary and astrophysical sciences with systems engineering in a nationally unique interdisciplinary academic unit.

She also helped establish and lead the Keck Laboratory for Environmental Biogeochemistry, a focal point for research at the molecular intersection of chemistry, geosciences and biology at ASU. Research in the laboratory was overseen by a four-member executive council that included Leshin and fellow ASU professors Ariel Anbar, Nancy Grimm and Everett Shock.

In 2004, Leshin served on President George W. Bush's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, a nine-member commission charged with advising the president on the execution of his new Vision for Space Exploration, leaving ASU for a leadership position at NASA.

From 2005–07, Leshin was the director of Sciences and Exploration Directorate at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, where she oversaw science activities. From 2008–09, she was the deputy center director for science and technology at Goddard. In this position, she oversaw strategy development at the center, leading an inclusive process to formulate future science and technology goals, and an integrated program of investments aligned to meet those goals.

With other NASA Goddard senior managers, she was responsible for effectively executing the center's $3 billion in programs and ensuring the scientific integrity of Earth-observing missions, space-based telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, and instruments exploring the sun, moon, Mercury, Mars, Saturn, comets and more.

Since 2014, Leshin lead the Worcester Polytechnic Institute as its 16th president and first female president in its 150-year history.

Top photo courtesy of Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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