Women in Tech: National Science Foundation Director France Córdova

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We interview leading women in STEM to learn more about how we can all work to make science and technology industries more inclusive. How can more women be encouraged to work in these fields?

France Córdova is Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States, a position she took on in March 2014, with a mission to engage with the public on science and its importance to national prosperity and global leadership. The NSF is the primary source of federal academic support, contributing 83% of funding support in computer science alone.

As an internationally recognised astrophysicist and the first female Chief Scientist at NASA, and many other outstanding roles in academia at institutions including Stanford, Purdue, Penn State and Cal Tech, France's contributions to science are prolific and widespread.

I spoke with France to learn about the beginnings of her career in science, the biggest breakthroughs we can expect to see in the coming years, and how we can encourage more women and girls into pursuing STEM fields.

What motivated you to begin your work in technology and science?

I was first attracted to physics when I saw the Bohr model of the hydrogen atom in 7th grade, but without mentors or role models I pursued other interests. One day, after receiving my bachelor’s, I saw a television special on neutron stars and asked for a job at the M.I.T. Center for Space Research the very next day.

What do you find exciting about your current role?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an amazing organization that is increasingly entering the public eye for the great work it does advancing all fields of scientific discovery, technical innovation, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. We award more the 90 percent of our 7.5 billion dollar budget to the present and future scientists, researchers, and engineers who will be at the forefront of science and engineering innovation in our country.

One of my favorite things about being NSF Director is hearing the latest on new discoveries. An excellent example is the recent discovery of gravitational waves, which would not have been possible without decades of consistent support from NSF.

What areas of technology do you think will have the biggest breakthroughs in the next 5 years?

NSF has always operated on the idea of investing in the next big breakthrough. Known as the agency where discoveries – and discoverers – happen, NSF funds those who are continually looking towards the future in hopes of confronting our world’s 21st century challenges.

In fact, NSF has concentrated on 10 big ideas for future investment, a novel approach to research in government. This initiative to make the big discoveries of the future is built on the foundation of our past investments, which have been instrumental in many significant advances in science to this point.

For example, the ways we work, live, and learn are increasingly infused with technology, and we can only expect that this will increase as time progresses. Research we fund will help shape the new human-technology frontier. It is not hard to imagine a future in which technologies are embedded around, on or even in us. An integrated, interdisciplinary approach anticipates new human-centered technologies and the technology-rich environments that will produce a higher quality of life for society.

How can we inspire and encourage more women and girls to become involved in STEM fields?

Ensuring more women and girls become involved in science and engineering research requires personal commitment to action within one's own sphere of influence.

As I stated in an editorial in Science magazine: NSF advances equity through data-driven decision-making. Our Career–Life Balance Initiative, for example, mitigates factors that can negatively affect women's ability to carry out research, especially during the early years of their careers. NSF's ADVANCE program encourages universities to use institutional data about recruitment and retention to develop structural changes to improve representation and advancement of women. These deliberate actions by NSF complement the research that NSF supports in the science and practice of STEM gender equity. Projects range from computer programming camps to encourage girls, to studies on creating classroom environments that attract and retain female students. One of our newest initiatives, NSF INCLUDES, is fostering innovative alliances and networks that can scale up effective methods for addressing shortages and broadening the participation of women and others who are underrepresented in STEM fields.

What advice would you give to someone starting a career in technology?

I am where I am today because I took advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves, and I created opportunities when they didn’t. The people who motivated me in my career where those who believed in me enough to ask me to take on new challenges, having faith I could perform a job before I even had faith in myself.

I love to tell students that before I received my PhD in Physics and became an astrophysicist, I actually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. I think it is important for students to know that it is never too late to pursue your passions, no matter when you discover them. I actually began my education in physics as one of only five girls in a high school physics class. After being an English major at Stanford, I became an astrophysicist by earning a doctorate in physics from Caltech.

See our Women in Tech & Science series for more Q&As.

Are you working in emerging areas of science and technology, or know of someone who is? Suggest women in STEM fields to speak at a RE•WORK event here.

View all upcoming events here.

Opinions expressed in this interview may not represent the views of RE•WORK. As a result some opinions may even go against the views of RE•WORK but are posted in order to encourage debate and well-rounded knowledge sharing, and to allow alternate views to be presented to our community.
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