Pioneering Spirit | Cover Feature, Oct. 2011

Pioneering Spirit

Passionate about science and the mysteries of life, Purdue University President France Córdova never stops exploring

Cover Feature

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As she makes her way into her office –– a bit later than she planned –– Dr. France Córdova, president of Purdue University, sputters apologies mixed with warm greetings.Cover Feature

Her morning began at the Wade Utility Plant in Lafayette, where a $7.5 million, 250,000-pound natural gas boiler is being installed as a replacement for the worn-out coal-powered boiler.

When the new boiler arrived, it was even painted the traditional Purdue colors of black and gold, which only added to the excitement surrounding this new, more environmentally friendly power source –– a bit of campus and community history in the making.

It’s just the kind of event that draws a highly inquisitive woman like Córdova. Certainly, it wasn’t something she would allow herself to miss.

“It’s not every day that you have a boilermaker delivered to Boilermaker country,” Córdova says with a smile.

Dressed in a lovely suit, she notices her patent leather high-heeled sandals and comments that her shoes are muddy from the morning’s excursion.

This lighthearted observation reveals that France Córdova is the kind of woman who doesn’t allow muddy shoes to be anything more than an amusing, unexpected part of her day.

Her office is flooded with early-morning sun, and the walls are decorated with framed art. The colors in the art are brilliant. A closer look reveals that these actually are images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronauts and NASA administrators have signed some of the pieces –– reminders of the years Córdova worked as a chief scientist for the organization. She was the youngest person and the first woman to ever hold the title.

Those pieces of art speak for her, about a life lived among incredible people, participating in life-changing experiences. She is held in the highest esteem in the world of the science.

Books neatly line the floor-to-ceiling shelves. Photographs of her family dot one side of the massive, neatly organized desk. An orange tree adorns the other side of the desk, by a window.

Córdova sits on the couch with her coffee cup in hand to talk about her life –– a life that has been lived passionately, with absolutely no acceptance of barriers or challenges too tough to conquer. In the field of science, she is a pioneer for women. Her insatiable curiosity about the world has made Córdova an incredibly accomplished and multidimensional scientist with an amazing résumé of life experiences.

The early years
Córdova’s origins as the oldest of 12 children provided unique lessons about accepting responsibility and developing work ethic.

Her late father, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, joined the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, the largest relief effort by an American agency. This post-war agency provided CARE packages –– 36 million pounds of surplus food, powdered milk and eggs –– to thousands suffering through the barren fields of drought. While serving in Paris, this highly respected advocate of humanity celebrated the birth of his first child and named her France.

As the family continued to grow, they eventually left Europe to make their permanent home in California. Like her father, Córdova’s mother was a deeply religious woman who stayed at home to raise eight daughters and four sons, teaching all of them along the way about living their faith.

“Religion is a big thing in our family. Faith permeates the family. I would say that was always my parents’ passion,” Córdova says.

To remember daily life with so many siblings brings an immediate grin to her face as Córdova recalls the rather chaotic before-school routine surrounding showering, dressing, grabbing breakfast and “running like mad” to catch the school bus in the mornings.

When she could, she chose to walk the three miles home after school rather than riding the bus. If she walked, she could often enjoy a bit of roller skating or bowling before making her way home to do homework and help with household chores.

As the eldest child in such a large family, Córdova did her fair share of babysitting too.

But she also learned early that another place to be recognized for her efforts was in the classroom.

“Teachers liked students who worked,” she says. “So I started to excel in the classroom. That was my personal space to get a modicum of recognition.”

But at home during those early years, Córdova saw just how fragile life can be.

For much of her childhood, Córdova’s father suffered from a serious, longtime illness that threatened his life –– to the point that the family’s priest performed last rites –– five times.

Fears associated with the always-present possibility of losing her father were balanced by the courage Córdova’s mother exhibited. During those frightening times, Córdova’s mother showed her husband and all of her children how to find comfort in faith.

Sparked interests
As a seventh-grade student, this high achiever experienced a moment that would eventually lead her to do amazing things that most can only dream about. As she carefully prepared a school science project about the atom, Córdova found herself mesmerized by the required research. She was perplexed by the intricacy and the beauty of a field of study with no limit to questions and an endless frontier for discoveries.Cover Feature

“There was just a resonance there,” Córdova says of the assignment to build an atom. “I was captivated by it. I just couldn’t believe it –– how elegant the atom really was.”

She filed away that experience for a while, graduated from high school and took perhaps her first big step as a pioneer when she became the first female from her high school to be accepted to Stanford University. She graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English. While at Stanford, a summer research assignment at a Zapotec Indian pueblo in Oaxaca, Mexico, inspired her to write about the women she met there. That work led Córdova to become a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City.

In 1969, that magic from the science project in seventh grade once again captivated Córdova’s heart. It happened while watching Purdue graduate Neil Armstrong’s televised steps across the moon. Córdova’s love for science not only was rekindled, it immediately became her new passion. She was so inspired that she enrolled at the California Institute of Technology and earned a Ph.D. in physics.

Her new career path first led Córdova to the Space Astronomy and Astrophysics Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where she served as deputy group leader. She then worked as the department head of astronomy and astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University.

Córdova reached even higher and landed an opportunity to work at NASA. She participated in many makings of history, such as the launch of several space missions and the resurrection of the Hubble Space Telescope after its first flight in 1990 proved to be a disaster. She also testified to Congress on the budget for the new space program. Those memories, immortalized in frames hung neatly on the walls of her office, are a source of great pride.

Continuing passions
While working at NASA, Córdova met her longtime friend, Al Diaz.

“She was chief scientist, and I was the deputy associate administrator for science and subsequently the director of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center,” Diaz says of their introduction.

Knowing Córdova all these years has meant a lot to him, Diaz says.

“I will always remember sharing the experience of the final space shuttle launch with her and her husband, Chris, and my wife, Angela,” he offers as a special memory. “It was marvelous being with friends that we had in common who were NASA leaders, including several astronauts. It brought back memories of the work we did at NASA.”

Their paths crossed again a few years ago when they both accepted professional opportunities at Purdue. Diaz serves as the university’s executive vice president for business and finance. He believes that Córdova’s many skills and abilities fit perfectly with her role as the university’s president.

“France is a talented and dedicated leader who sometimes seems inexhaustible,” he says. “She motivates and is motivated by students. And I think she will be remembered by many of them as a teacher and friend.”

When she left NASA, Córdova did not leave behind her passion for science. In fact, she serves now as the co-principal investigator for a National Science Foundation grant of nearly $4 million, which will provide Purdue with a national model program. Again leading the way with a pioneer’s spirit, Córdova hopes to increase the number of women working in the areas of science, technology, engineering, math and agriculture.

In 2007, she readily moved into her current role, another leadership opportunity in an atmosphere of high energy and dedication.

“Purdue is a big, robust, healthy institution,” she says with a smile. “It corresponds with my work ethic.”

Something Córdova appreciates about this particular campus is that many people here share her vision.

“They are pushing to be on top of what they do,” she says. “There is a sense of aggressiveness without being too aggressive.”

During her tenure, Córdova has definitely made a positive impact, Diaz says.

Along with her key role in the development of the New Synergies strategic plan for the university, “the greatest achievement will be student success,” he says. “During her tenure, retention and graduation rates have improved, and with them, the overall rankings of the university, both nationally and internationally.”

Home life
Beyond the long list of accomplishments, who else is this woman who gets mud on her sandals and then chuckles her way into the president’s chair to begin the day?

Cover FeatureWell, Córdova frequently rises and shines at 3 a.m.

She also sprinkles conversation with bits of humor, often when it’s least expected.

For example, she would like to say that every morning begins with exercise.

“That’s my fantasy of myself,” Córdova laughs. “To get up every morning and exercise.”

In a recent effort to make that fantasy a reality, Córdova says she has committed to work with a student trainer on campus.

“That really keeps me disciplined,” she says of the decision. “I need to make sure I exercise. I have a bone density problem.”

Most evenings, she and her husband, Chris Foster, are usually in bed by 10 p.m. with books on their laps since they share a common love for reading. Like his wife, Foster boasts an impressive 30-year career as a science educator and researcher. He too works at Purdue, as the university’s director of the Discovery Park K-12 programs, focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.

When they aren’t reading their favorite books, these two science lovers slip away to spend free time on outdoor adventures. This makes sense, since their romance was immediately sparked when they met while rock climbing in New Mexico.

“He was very aggressive, really. He swung over on his rope and said he liked my shoes,” Córdova says with a laugh.

That mutual love for adventure has permeated the marriage and punctuated family vacations with many fun excursions.

Spending time with her family is a priority, Córdova says. It’s certainly a challenge to schedule a family trip now that the children have adult responsibilities too. Daughter Ann recently accepted an opportunity teaching minority students, while son Stephen began a career in investment banking.

But when you’ve lived a life seeking the adventurous, mysterious and breathtaking, you just find a way to make it work.

One might assume that growing up with 11 siblings and pursuing all these taxing careers might have led Córdova to hunger for silence and time to lounge quietly on a beach or poolside at a resort.

But that is contrary to the way this high-achieving pioneer spends her free time.

Once everyone’s schedules coordinate, Córdova and her family happily escape their careers and daily responsibilities to engage in not-so-relaxing activities such as whitewater rafting in Montana or hiking in Costa Rica.

These vacations –– bouncing around in the rapids or repelling off rocks ––perfectly match Córdova’s adventurous spirit. She has never outgrown or forgotten the thrill of exploring new frontiers as a budding scientist in seventh grade.

Córdova has lived a life that clearly shows she doesn’t believe anything is impossible.

Perhaps her favorite time of the year occurs when the family gathers in late November for Thanksgiving, her most cherished holiday. This is the date designated for traditions blended with new beginnings. Everyone expects –– bordering on demands –– Córdova to whip up a delicious recipe using brussels sprouts. Stephen is in charge of the pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes. Ann prepares the other vegetables. And Chris takes on the turkey.

“Everybody has their roles,” Córdova says lightly. “And the significant others pitch in and clean up.”

Most of the time –– and especially on Thanksgiving morning –– Córdova is the first person to roll out of bed while the house is quiet. Somewhere during their holiday time together, between the dinner preparation, the meal and conversation and the cleanup, the family manages time for an energetic hike and lots of photos along the way.

Exploring and understanding what’s most intricate and mysterious about life ––from the system within an atom, to the intricacies of life for the women within a Zapotec pueblo, to the amazing images from the Hubble Telescope, to her sudden need to trample across a muddy field to see with her own eyes the monstrous new boiler –– those are the special characteristics that define this university president.

Beginnings and endings
Along with watching her children begin new life stages, Córdova recently dealt with life’s closure.

Last year, she and her husband each lost their fathers.Cover Feature

Like her own father, Córdova’s father-in-law was a man of incredible courage. He served as a forward observer in General Patton’s army for 200 combat missions.

When relatives gathered this past June for the traditional family reunion, set every year on Father’s Day, the pain of her father’s absence led Córdova to write tender thoughts about the man who helped instill such drive in her:

“From our first day of school, our fathers conveyed their pride in us, and that helped us set high goals for ourselves. We were proud of them, and we wanted them to be proud of us. I can’t dance with my father this Father’s Day, but our daughter is waiting for her opportunity to dance with her father. The day is a treasure, and the treasure is regifted.”

Along with watching new beginnings and parting with those she loves most, Córdova has recently made some decisions about her own next stage of life.

In July, she announced that, during the summer of 2012, when her five-year contract is complete, she will transition out of her role as Purdue’s president. Along with that announcement, however, came a promise to maintain exactly what she has been doing since taking a seat behind the president’s desk. Córdova has a long, impressive list of initiatives to complete.

And she is so focused on delivering for Purdue that she refuses to talk about anything except the goals planned for this final year.

“I just want to keep my focus on Purdue right now,” Córdova says when asked about her plans after leaving her position. “I don’t want to lose my momentum here.”

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