Laurie Leshin Is New JPL Director

Laurie Leshin Is New JPL Director

Laurie Leshin, President of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has been chosen as the new director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, succeeding Michael Watkins. A planetary scientist at Arizona State University who moved to NASA and then returned to academia, she was the first woman President of WPI and will become the first woman JPL Director when she takes office in May.

Laurie Leshin. Credit: WPI

JPL is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, CA. As Director of JPL, Leshin will also be a Vice President of Caltech, a homecoming of sorts since she received her Ph.D. in geochemistry there.

Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum said Leshin stood out “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.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson praised the decision: “In this new era of groundbreaking discoveries and constant innovation, it is clear that Dr. Laurie Leshin has a track record of scholarship and leadership needed to serve as director of JPL and cement the center’s status as a global leader in the 21st century.”

Leshin was a co-investigator on two instruments on JPL’s Mars Curiosity rover and called the appointment to lead JPL a “dream come true.”

“Some of the most impactful experiences of my career have taken place on the Caltech campus and at JPL – lessons learned and goals achieved that have shaped me as a leader and a space scientist. The opportunity to return to working closely with so many colleagues across Caltech – at the Lab and on campus – and at NASA is a dream come true.”

Laurie Leshin, second from left, celebrates the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Aug. 5, 2012, with other members of the science teams at JPL. Leshin is a co-Investigator on two of the rover’s instruments, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) tool and the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS). She previously served as a long-term planner on the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Leshin began her career at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1998, she moved to Arizona State University, where she’d received her B.S. in chemistry, and soon became the Dee and John Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences and director of the Center for Meteorite Studies there.

In 2004, President George W. Bush appointed her to the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, often called the Aldridge report after its chairman, Edward “Pete” Aldrige, to make recommendations on carrying out his Moon/Mars plan, the Vision for Space Exploration.

After serving on the Commsision, Leshin decided to leave academia and join NASA. In 2005 she became director of Science and Exploration at Goddard Space Flight Center and in 2008 was promoted to Goddard Deputy Director for Science and Technology. Two years later she moved to NASA Headquarters to serve as Deputy Director of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. She returned to academia a year later, joining Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as dean of the School of Science. In 2014, she was selected to become President of WPI, the first woman in that position in its 150-year history. Her husband, Jon Morse, is an astrophysicist who headed NASA’s Astrophysics Divison in the Science Mission Directorate from 2007-2011. He is now an entrepreneur with Boldly Go Institute and AstronetX.

She will begin her tenure at JPL on May 16, replacing Watkins who retired in August 2021. Larry James, who was JPL’s Deputy Director, has been Interim Director since then. Today’s announcement said Leshin is succeeding both of them.

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