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Hispanic Heritage

France Anne Córdova

Birth: August 5, 1947
Nationality: American, Mexican
Occupation: Astrophysicist, Educational administrator, Editor

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that there are no limits to what France Anne Córdova can do. After winning early success as a novelist, cookbook author, and guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine, Córdova went back to school to study physics. She has since established herself as a preeminent physicist. In 1984, Science Digest named this rising young star among " America's 100 Brightest Scientists Under 40" for her attempts to unlock the secrets of the universe. From 1993 to 1996, Córdova worked as the chief scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the youngest person ever to hold that post. She now serves as the vice chancellor for research at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB).

Inspires Many Others

A 1997 article in Woman, a supplement to the Santa Barbara New-Press asked a colleague to describe Córdova. "I find her to be one of the most inspiring persons on campus right now," says Victoria Vesna, an art studies professor at UCSB. "She truly has a vision and it is broad and expansive. Her vision is beyond her own ego: It allows her to be free and take risks."

Córdova was born August 5, 1947, in Paris. While there her father, a Mexican American and West Point graduate named Frederick Córdova, oversaw the Cooperative for American Remittances Everywhere (CARE),a nonprofit organization set up after World War II to distribute food and clothing overseas. As Woman recounts: Frederick Córdova expected his firstborn to be a boy and planned to name the child Frederick III. The mother even embroidered a little "F" on all the baby's clothes. When the baby turned out to be a girl, she was baptized Françoise in the Notre Dame Cathedral. (Córdova later Americanized the name to France.)

Córdova grew up in California as the big sister who helped care for 11 siblings. Her after-school chores included babysitting, folding diapers, and ironing school uniforms. Despite the ever-present demands at home, Córdova managed to study hard and received top grades at school. As a senior in high school, she earned a spot among California's "Ten Outstanding Youth."

As an undergraduate at Stanford University, Córdova majored in English. But while on an anthropology tangent as a junior, she spent a summer at an archaeological dig near a Zapotec Indian pueblo in Oaxaca, Mexico. This foray into her Mexican heritage prompted her to write a short novel, called The Women of Santo Domingo, based on her experiences. In 1969, the year she graduated, her book was declared one of the ten best entries in the guest editorship contest held by Mademoiselle in New York City. As part of her contest entry, Córdova also compiled a collection of Zapotec recipes and turned them into a cookbook.

Changes Career Direction

In the summer of 1969, news coverage of the U.S. Apollo 11 spaceflight held the attention of the budding writer, along with the rest of the nation. Córdova sat transfixed by the televised landing of men on the moon, as they touched down July 20. Now hooked on space exploration, Córdova later saw a television show on the origins of the universe and decided to change her own direction in life. Subsequently, Córdova told Woman: "What's fascinating about science is all the mystery. Who are we? Where did we come from? We are not all there is."

But even while pursuing a doctorate in physics, Córdova wrote and edited many newspaper articles as a staff member of the Los Angeles Times news service. Nonetheless, Córdova earned a Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1979. She was one of only two women in a class of eighteen.

After graduation she went to work as a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. According to Woman: "As a young astronomer, Córdova pioneered a new approach to studying the stars. She helped mobilize hundreds of her colleagues around the world, amateurs and professionals alike, to simultaneously point their telescopes at the same fleeting events in space; the stars that pulse, flare, and explode." She was one of the first astrophysicists "to measure the X-Ray radiation emanating from white dwarfs, old stars with intense gravitational fields and pulsars, stars that flash rhythmically like fast-spinning lighthouses in space."

From 1980 through 1986, she also served as project leader for a project called Astrophysical Processes in Strong Gravitational Fields. Her primary duty was to direct a research group whose interests included pulsars, X-Ray binaries, cataclysmic variable stars and the dust shells of novae. In the middle of this project, she fell in love. While rock climbing in 1983, Córdova met Christian Foster, a high school science teacher. They married and in June of 1986, at the age of 38, Córdova gave birth to a daughter named Anne-Catherine, followed by a son named Stephen in November of 1987.

Publishes Multiwavelength Astrophysics

Although she had taken on the rewarding job of mother, Córdova did not abandon her professional goals. She produced another book in 1988 as the editor of Multiwavelength Astrophysics, a collection of selected review papers representing all aspects of the field including scientific application, data analysis, and instrumentation. In 1989, Córdova was promoted to deputy group leader of the space astronomy and astrophysics group at Los Alamos. She was also put in charge of the Optical Monitor Digital Processing Unit on the European Space Agency's X-Ray Multi-Mirror Mission, with $6 million in dedicated funding by NASA from 1989 through launch in 1999. As the U.S. principal investigator, Córdova agreed to direct research scientists, graduate students, and support staff at UCSB, plus direct the efforts of teams of scientists and engineers at Sandia and Los Alamos national labs. That same year, Pennsylvania State University tapped Córdova to take a professorship and head its astronomy and astrophysics department. By 1993, she was elected to a three-year term as a vice president at Penn State. Later in the year, NASA appointed her chief scientist; she became the second woman to hold that title. She was stationed at the Langley Research Center, just outside Washington, DC.

By 1995, according to Woman: "Córdova was put to the test." In an era of finding more efficient and quicker ways to do the job at a lower cost, NASA officials recommended reducing its nine research centers to two. Córdova was not giving up without a fight. She argued that severe cuts would hamper their research and virtually render their efforts ineffective. Thanks to her efforts not one of the centers was shut down, and she was able to save some of the most critical programs needed to move the research forward and even created a new institute for the study of space biomedical sciences. Her valiant efforts won her praise from NASA comptroller Malcolm Peterson. He was quoted in Woman as saying: "None of the other chief scientists brought to the job the energy and inquisitiveness and the understanding of the challenges before us: not enough money and too many great ideas." Córdova hopes that contracting to private organizations could save money, protect expertise, and help preserve the agency's science programs. "The main challenge is to make sure we have a viable science effort at the end of the day," she said in an article for Science.

Offers Advice to Hispanic American Youth

As a high-profile science administrator, Córdova has had to overcome personal and professional criticism. In a 1996 article in The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, she relayed her personal coping tactics and gave advice to Hispanic American youths during a question-and-answer session: "I'm by nature optimistic. Reaching goals isn't for pessimistic people. At all steps of my career, there was someone saying, 'I wouldn't do that. You're too old, too young, too inexperienced.' There are always naysayers. Ask yourself: What is important to me? What is my vision?" She challenged students to look beyond the present into the future to determine what they want to accomplish in life. She also encouraged them to ask if they would have the conviction and vision to stand by their dreams in the face of adversity.

Public Broadcasting Service put the spotlight on Córdova in April of 1996. PBS produced a television miniseries that profiled the careers of 20 Native American, African American, and Hispanic American scientists and engineers. The six-hour series, billed as a celebration of science, conveys their enthusiasm for their chosen disciplines and encourages minorities to pursue careers in math and science.

Accepts Administrative Position at UCSB

In July of 1996, Córdova left NASA with high marks and high honors to accept one of the top administrative posts at UCSB. At that time, she had more than 100 scientific papers to her credit. As vice chancellor of research, Córdova pledged to get the entire campus more involved with research in space. She also championed the integration of the arts and sciences. In her first year at UCSB, she wrung $550,000 out of the campus budget for three years of research on topics that would bring together artists and engineers, sociologists and oceanographers, and musicians and computer engineers.

In 1997, Córdova proudly accepted an honorary doctorate from Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles. However, that accolade could not compare to another she received later that year: As a way of recognizing Córdova's contribution to the Mars Pathfinder Space Program, NASA put her name inside a spacecraft that landed on Mars in 1997. When the Pathfinder landed July 4 on Mars, it was carrying a CD-ROM with a dedication to Córdova.

 

UPDATES

May 7, 2007: Cordova was appointed president of Purdue University. Source: Inside Higher Ed, http://insidehighered.com/news/2007/05/25/presidents, May 27, 2007.

 

WORKS

Selected writings

  • Multiwavelength astrophysics. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

 

FURTHER READINGS

  • American Men & Women of Science, 19th edition. New Providence, NJ: R. R. Bowker, 1996.
  • Bourne, Kay. "Documentary Examines Roles of Minorities in the Sciences." Bay State Banner, April 18, 1996, p. 15.
  • Breakthrough: The Changing Face of Science in America Home Page. Available at http://breakthrough.blackside.com/bios/cordovabio.htm.
  • Burns, Melinda, "Head in the Stars, Feet on the Ground." Woman, Santa Barbara News-Press Magazine, Summer 1997, pp. 16-20.
  • "The Changing Face of Science in America." Hispanic Times, April 30, 1996, p. 18.
  • Goodwin, Irwin. "NASA Gets New Chief Scientist; DOE Loses a Nuclear Veteran." Physics Today, October 1993, pp. 111-112.
  • Goodwin, Irwin. "Zare Takes Helm of Science Board; U of California Chooses Córdova." Physics Today, July 1996, pp. 51-52.
  • Hispanic Business Home Page. Available at http://www.HispanStar.com.
  • Lawler, Andrew. "NASA Plans Major Science Overhaul." Science, May 26, 1995, pp. 1122-1123.
  • Lawler, Andrew. "Pace of NASA Change Worries Advisers." Science, March 17, 1995, p. 1589.
  • Stern, Gary M. "Hispanics in Science; What Does it Take to Succeed?" Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, October 11, 1996, p. 11.
  • Worhach, Denise. Curriculum vitae from France Anne Córdova, April, 1998.

 

SOURCE CITATION

Notable Hispanic American Women, Book 2. Gale, 1998.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2007.

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