Laurie Leshin is an American scientist and academic administrator serving as the 10th Director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and as a vice-president of the California Institute of Technology. Leshin's research has focused on geochemistry and space science. Leshin previously served as the 16th president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
In 2005, she became director of science and exploration at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and in 2008, she was promoted to Goddard’s deputy director for science and technology, where she and colleagues were responsible for the strategy, planning, and implementation of more than 50 Earth and space flight projects. In 2010, Leshin assumed the role of deputy associate administrator of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, where her work involved the oversight of the future human spaceflight program, including efforts to establish commercial crew capabilities and elements of what is now the Artemis program. In that role, Leshin also worked to catalyze worldwide space exploration by engaging with international space organizations and corporations, and through developing new technologies and robotic missions to create new possibilities for humans to travel to destinations deeper in the solar system. Leshin left NASA in 2011 to join Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as dean of the School of Science.
At WPI, Leshin focused on expanding research, WPI’s signature Global Projects Program, and ways to address gender disparity in STEM. In addition, during her presidential tenure, new academic and collaboration spaces were developed on the WPI campus, notably a 40,000-square-foot Innovation Studio, with flexible, creative space for active learning classrooms, and the newly opened Unity Hall, a 100,000-square-foot academic building focused on robotics engineering, data science, cybersecurity, learning sciences and technology, and other emerging interdisciplinary programs. WPI is now among STEM institutions with the highest percentage of female undergraduate students and is recognized for its balance of excellence in teaching and groundbreaking research.
Alongside her administrative career, Leshin has continued her scientific endeavors, which are focused on deciphering the record of water on objects in our solar system. For example, she served as a member of the Mars Science Laboratory science team that analyzed data collected by the Curiosity rover to find evidence of water on the surface of Mars. She has also been involved in planning and advocating for Mars Sample Return missions for more than two decades.
Raised in Arizona, Leshin earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Arizona State University (ASU), followed by master’s and doctoral degrees in geochemistry from Caltech. After a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA, she served as a professor of geological sciences at ASU and director of its Center for Meteorite Studies. Before leaving ASU for NASA, she led the formation of ASU’s pathbreaking School of Earth and Space Exploration.
Leshin is a recipient of NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal and Distinguished Public Service Medal, and of the Meteoritical Society’s Nier Prize, awarded for outstanding research in meteoritics or planetary science by a scientist under the age of 35. The International Astronomical Union recognized her contributions to planetary science with the naming of asteroid 4922 Leshin.
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. In 2013, President Barack Obama appointed Leshin to the advisory board of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. Since 2016, she has co-chaired the National Academies Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable.
In 2021, Leshin received Caltech’s Distinguished Alumni Award, which is bestowed annually by the Institute in recognition of personal and professional accomplishments that have made a noteworthy impact in a field, community, or society more broadly.
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