New JPL Director
To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: January 27, 2022
I am delighted to announce that Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, distinguished Caltech alumna, and a space science and technology leader, will join Caltech as JPL director and vice president on May 16, 2022.
In this pivotal role, Laurie will bring her demonstrated success in managing complex organizations and developing strong, diverse, and collaborative teams. She will oversee a Laboratory with an exciting upcoming agenda of planetary exploration and Earth science missions and help define the strategic vision for JPL over the coming decades. Laurie will work closely with the JPL executive council and the Caltech Board of Trustees. As a member of the Institute's senior leadership, she will help strengthen the bonds between the Lab, campus, NASA, the university community, and private space industry.
Laurie is a distinguished geochemist and space scientist who has been lauded for her barrier-breaking leadership. Laurie became WPI's 16th president in 2014, the first woman in that role. She will be JPL's first female director and succeeds Michael Watkins, who retired in August 2021 to resume his academic and research career at Caltech as professor of aerospace and geophysics.
Prior to joining WPI, Laurie served as dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her academic appointments followed a variety of NASA roles, including director of science and exploration and then deputy center director for science and technology at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. She later served as deputy associate administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.
Alongside her administrative career, Laurie continues her scientific endeavors, which are focused on deciphering the record of water on objects in our solar system. Notably, 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 worked with JPL for more than two decades, including planning and advocating for Mars Sample Return throughout her career.
Laurie 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. Laurie 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 2021, Laurie 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.
I am grateful to the search committee that recommended Laurie after it assessed a comprehensive, diverse, and impressive slate of candidates from across the nation. The committee included trustees Barbara Barrett, Bob Inman, Jon Kutler (co-chair), Mike Mullen, and Dave Thompson (co-chair); Caltech faculty members John Grotzinger and Beverley McKeon; campus-based staff members Diana Jergovic and Jennifer Lum; and JPL staff Michael Greene and Peter Theisinger. The committee was staffed by Hillary Tribbs.
Since August 2021, Lt. Gen. Larry D. James USAF (Ret.), has served as Caltech's interim vice president and interim JPL director. He has deftly guided JPL with care and steady leadership. Please join me in thanking Larry for his service as we welcome Laurie back to campus and JPL.