An internationally recognized astrophysicist who is chancellor of University of California, Riverside, was chosen Monday (May 7) as the 11th president of Purdue University.

The Purdue Board of Trustees, meeting on the Loeb Playhouse stage on campus, voted unanimously to hire France A. Cordova and then brought her on stage to the music of “Hail Purdue.”

Cordova, 59, has served at Riverside since 2002, coming from the University of California at Santa Barbara where she had been vice chancellor for research and a professor of physics for six years. Before that, she was the youngest person to hold the position of NASA chief scientist, working on projects that included the Hubble Space Telescope.

J. Timothy McGinley, chairman of Purdue’s Board of Trustees, announced Cordova’s selection following a seven-month search for a successor to Martin C. Jischke, who will retire on June 30 after serving as Purdue president since Aug. 14, 2000. McGinley said Cordova’s exact start date at Purdue will be determined later. 

“Our trustees interviewed several very outstanding candidates who would have been excellent presidents, but France Cordova is the right person at the right time for Purdue,” McGinley said. “The breadth of her expertise, as we might expect from a astrophysicist, enables me to make a powerful statement. Dr. France Cordova’s resume is truly out of this world. She has distinguished herself as a scientist, an administrator and a creative writer. She is truly a Renaissance person.”

Cordova said she and Purdue are on the same trajectory.

“I will never forget the day Purdue alumnus Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969,” Cordova said, recalling it was the same year she graduated cum laude with a degree in English from Stanford University. “It eventually drew me to the California Institute of Technology, where I began exploring the mysteries of the universe. And now I’ve come full circle – to Purdue, the cradle of astronauts and the place that played a major role in launching my quest. 

“The opportunity to lead one of America’s great universities is a wonderful privilege for me. I have tremendous respect for the achievements of Purdue under Martin Jischke’s leadership, and I look forward to working with the faculty, staff and students here.” 

After earning her doctorate in physics from Cal Tech in 1979, Cordova spent the next decade at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a member of the Space Astronomy and Astrophysics Group. She then joined Penn State University to head the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. 

In 1993, she began work at NASA, serving as the primary scientific adviser to the NASA administrator and the principal interface between NASA headquarters and the broader scientific community. During this time, she served on the National Science and Technology Council’s Fundamental Science Committee. 

Cordova’s scientific contributions have been in the areas of observational and experimental astrophysics, multi-spectral research on X-ray and gamma ray sources, and space-borne instrumentation. Her multi-spectral approach uses telescopes on the ground and in space to approach a more comprehensive understanding of cosmic sources of radiation. 

She has published more than 150 scientific papers and reports and has a current experiment flying on the European Space Agency’s X-Ray Multi-Mirror Mission. 

She is the winner of NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, and was recognized as a 2000 Kilby Laureate for “contributions to society through science, technology, innovation, invention and education.” 

She was the award-winning author in 1969 of a work of fiction, “The Women of Santo Domingo,” based on her anthropologic field work in a Zapotec Indian pueblo in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a Zapotec Indian cookbook. For that, she won a guest editorship with Mademoiselle magazine and the opportunity to write a feature travel article on Israel. She also wrote and edited for the Los Angeles Times News Service.  

In 1984, Cordova was named one of “America’s 100 Brightest Scientists Under 40.” Cordova has earned numerous other recognitions. She was named one of the “100 Most Influential Hispanics” by Hispanic Business Magazine, which also recognized her with the Hispanic Achievement Award in Science and Technology. 

She is a distinguished professor at UC Riverside, where she teaches astrobiology. She is a member of numerous professional associations and currently serves on the boards of directors for the American Council on Education and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. In 1997, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.

The oldest of 12 children, Cordova was born in Paris and spent a few years in Germany, where her father served as the Chief of Missions for CARE, a U. S. relief organization. She graduated from high school in La Puente, Calif., east of Los Angeles.

An avid sports enthusiast, she said she also enjoys running, canoeing, hiking and cross-country skiing. Cordova met her husband, Christian J. Foster, a science educator, while rock climbing outside Los Alamos, N.M. They have two college-age children. 

A 14-member search committee, which included faculty, staff and students, was co-chaired by trustees Michael J. Birck of Hinsdale, Ill., and John Hardin Jr. of Danville, Ind. Three other trustees served on the search committee: Susan Bulkeley Butler of Tucson; Mamon M. Powers Jr. of Gary, Ind.; and William Oesterle of Indianapolis. 

Purdue faculty and administrators on the committee were: Charles Rutledge, vice president for research; Michael Wartell, chancellor of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne; Diane Denis, professor and senior associate dean of management; Thomas Farris, head of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics; Joseph Francisco, William E. Moore Distinguished Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Science and Chemistry; Carolyn Perrucci, professor of sociology and anthropology; and Bernard Tao, chair of the University Senate and the Indiana Soybean Board Professor in Soybean Utilization Research. 

Other committee members included Jonathan Foltz, Purdue Student Government president, and Purdue alumnus Jerry Semler of Indianapolis.