Caltech Names Laurie Leshin Director of JPL

Laurie Leshin

Laurie Leshin formally assumes her roles as director of NASA JPL and vice president of Caltech in May 2022. Credit: Photo courtesy of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), has been appointed director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and vice president of Caltech. Leshin will formally assume her position on May 16, 2022, succeeding Michael Watkins, who retired in August 2021, and Lt. Gen. Larry D. James USAF (Ret.), who currently serves as JPL interim director.

She joins JPL from WPI, one of the nation’s oldest private STEM universities, where she has served as president since 2014. She is the first woman president in the university’s 150-year history and will be JPL’s first female director.

“NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a storied history of defying what was once thought impossible in the field of space exploration. 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,” says NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Under Dr. Leshin, the technology invented at JPL will continue to allow humans to explore the places in our universe that we cannot yet reach and spark the imaginations of future mathematicians, engineers, and pioneers in classrooms across America. I want to thank Mike Watkins and Gen. Larry James for their contributions that the JPL team will build on for decades to come.”

Members of the science teams at JPL celebrating the landing of NASA's Curiosity rover

Laurie Leshin, second from left, celebrates the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Aug. 5, 2012, with other members of the science teams at JPL. Leshin is a co-investigator on two of the rover’s instruments, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) tool and the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS). She previously served as a long-term planner on the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Leshin is an internationally recognized scientist whose career has spanned academia and senior positions at NASA and included two White House appointments. She has been lauded for her barrier-breaking leadership in the space industry and in academia as well as for her accomplishments as a distinguished geochemist and space scientist.

“I am both thrilled and humbled to be appointed the director of JPL. 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. The opportunity to return to working closely with so many colleagues across Caltech — at the Lab and on campus — and at NASA is a dream come true,” Leshin says. “We have enormous opportunities ahead to leverage JPL’s global leadership in robotic space exploration to answer awe-inspiring scientific questions and improve life here on Earth. I look forward to my work with Caltech and NASA to ensure that JPL continues to drive innovation across the global space ecosystem. Finally, I am especially honored to be the first woman to hold the title of director of JPL. I know from personal experience that diverse teams make a greater impact, and I will work every day to ensure that JPL is a place where all belong and thrive. We will dare mighty things, together.”

In 2005, Leshin became director of science and exploration at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and in 2008, she was promoted to Goddard’s deputy director for science and technology, where she and her colleagues were responsible for the strategy, planning, and implementation of more than 50 Earth and space flight projects. In 2010, Leshin assumed the role of deputy associate administrator of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, where her work involved the oversight of the future human spaceflight program, including efforts to establish commercial crew capabilities and elements of what is now the Artemis program. In that role, Leshin also worked to catalyze worldwide space exploration by engaging with international space organizations and corporations developing new technologies and robotic missions to create new possibilities for humans to travel to destinations deeper in the solar system. Leshin left NASA in 2011 to join Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as dean of the School of Science.