Laurie Leshin, currently president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, will start as director of JPL in May. Credit: WPI

WASHINGTON — A planetary scientist and university president will be the next person, and first woman, to run NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The California Institute of Technology announced Jan. 27 that it selected Laurie Leshin to be the next director of JPL, which the university operates for NASA as a center for developing and operating robotic space exploration missions. She succeeds Mike Watkins, who stepped down as director of JPL in August to become a professor at Caltech.

Leshin is currently president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts. She will start as director of JPL on May 16, after the conclusion of the academic year at WPI. Larry James, deputy director of JPL, will continue as interim director until then.

“Laurie Leshin stood out in an exhaustive international search 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,” Thomas Rosenbaum, president of Caltech, said in a statement announcing Leshin’s selection.

Leshin’s career includes experience both in academia and at NASA. After earning a doctorate in geochemistry from Caltech, she became a professor at Arizona State University and director of its Center for Meteorite Studies. She later was a member of the science team on the Curiosity Mars rover as co-investigator on two of its instruments.

She served on a 2004 presidential panel, commonly known as the Aldridge Commission, tasked with evaluating President George W. Bush’s proposed Vision for Space Exploration. A year later, she joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as director for science and exploration, becoming deputy director for science and technology in 2008. She went to NASA Headquarters in 2010 as deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development.

Leshin left NASA in 2011 to become dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and took the job of president of WPI in 2014.

“I am both thrilled and humbled to be appointed the director of JPL,” Leshin said in a statement. “In many ways, this feels like a homecoming. 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.”

She will be the first woman to run JPL, which Caltech established in 1936 and has operated for NASA since 1958. “I am especially honored to be the first woman to hold the title of director of JPL,” she said. “I know from personal experience that diverse teams make greater impact, and I will work every day to ensure that JPL is a place where all belong and thrive.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson offered his endorsement of the selection. “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,” he said in an agency statement.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...