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Former NASA Scientist Laurie Leshin Selected as WPI President

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Laurie Leshin, Ph.D has been elected by the Board of Trustees of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) as the university's 16th president.

Over the past 20 years, Leshin, a geochemist and space scientist, established herself as both an academic and administrative leader, having cultivated a career at NASA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Arizona State University (ASU), and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Leshin was selected to lead WPI from an initial candidate pool of approximately 200. She is the first woman to head the university in its nearly 150-year history, and she will begin her service to WPI at the start of the university’s academic year, which also happens to be its sesquicentennial year, on July 1, 2014.

“In addition to bringing exceptional academic credentials from some of our nation’s leading universities, Laurie also brings tremendous experience and expertise from her time spent in leadership positions at NASA. She is an academic who understands the role of – and the potential for – academia in the larger world. Laurie has the rare capacity to work as successfully with students and faculty as she does with the White House and Congress. She is well positioned to take WPI to an even higher level of excellence and prominence. We are proud to have her at the helm of this fine university.”

Formerly Dean at RPI

Most recently Leshin served as Dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer, overseeing six departments, more than 30 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, six research centers, and more than 250 faculty and staff. During her time at Rensselaer, she established new interdisciplinary research directions and opportunities; implemented significant curriculum innovations; established fundraising initiatives; increased the faculty and their research endeavors; improved diversity, and significantly increased the School of Science’s communication and outreach. Leshin also continued her extensive research and national service during her time at Rensselaer in three important ways: through her work as a funded science team member for the Mars Curiosity Rover mission; through her appointment by President Obama to the Advisory Board for the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum; and through her appointment by former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to the Advisory Board of the US Merchant Marine Academy.

Leshin joined Rensselaer after spending six years as a senior leader at NASA. She joined the agency in 2005 as director of science and exploration at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where, as the head of NASA’s largest science organization, she was responsible for the strategic management and organization of more than 300 PhDs working in fields ranging from high-energy astrophysics to climate change. In 2008 Leshin was promoted to deputy center director for science and technology at NASA Goddard, a center with 3,200 employees and a $3 billion budget, responsible for the strategy, planning and implementation of 50 earth and space flight projects. During her time in that role, Leshin initiated and expanded partnerships with universities, with industry, and with other government organizations. As the senior scientist at NASA Goddard, she communicated NASA achievements and plans to numerous and diverse audiences, including a presentation to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

In 2010 Leshin was tapped to join NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., the organization responsible for future NASA human spaceflight activities. As deputy associate administrator, her work involved daily oversight and planning for the implementation of the largest proposed shift in human spaceflight activities since the end of the Apollo program. In that role, she and the associate administrator oversaw a budget of $4 billion and a nationwide workforce of over 15,000; she also worked extensively with Congress, the White House, industry, and the public to communicate NASA’s plans and influence support for – and authorization of – its vision and programs. Leshin sought to catalyze a worldwide space exploration movement by engaging with international space organizations, and through oversight of development of new technologies and robotic missions–including commercial capabilities for low Earth orbit transport and new technologies that would allow for humans to travel destinations deeper in the universe.

Prior to joining NASA, Leshin was a scientist and professor at ASU from 1998 to 2005. Her successful research program focused on geochemical analysis of meteorites, the origin of the solar system, water on Mars, and astrobiology. In 2001 she was named the Dee and John Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences, and would go on to help lead the development of the first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary School of Earth and Space Exploration at the university. Leshin also served as director of the Center for Meteorite Studies at ASU, which houses the largest university-based meteorite collection in the world.

Leshin began her academic career in 1994 as a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA in the Department of Earth and Space Science. She spent four years at UCLA, where she was also named a W. W. Rubey Faculty Fellow.

Leshin earned a BS in Chemistry from Arizona State University in 1987. From there, she studied at the California Institute of Technology, where she earned both an MS in geochemistry in 1989 and a Ph.D. in geochemistry in 1994.

Her own asteroid

In 2004 Leshin received the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, and in 2011 she received NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal. She is a recipient of the Meteoritical Society’s Nier Prize for her research. She has served on the Board of Directors of Women in Aerospace, the Council of the American Geophysical Union. The International Astronomical Union recognized her contributions to planetary science by naming asteroid “4922 Leshin.”

“A great deal of time and effort was put into finding a leader who would embrace WPI’s commitment to global, project-based learning, who would continue to empower our faculty and students to constantly seek innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving, and who would appreciate and contribute to the spirit and culture of WPI,” said Interim President Phil Ryan. “Laurie not only brings academic credentials, extensive administrative leadership experience, and superb communication skills, she also brings vision and energy and warmth that will inspire faculty, staff, and students. I expect our university to thrive under her leadership.”

“WPI has been a leading innovator in engineering, technology, and science education for nearly 150 years,” said Leshin. “Other universities look to WPI to see how best to educate and engage students in experiential learning, an approach at the core of the WPI Plan. WPI’s integration of science and engineering with the social sciences, humanities, arts, and business is notable for the truly holistic approach it takes to educating tomorrow’s leaders. I am impressed by the excellence and dedication of the faculty and their scholarship, and I am inspired by the students--by their vision and the work they do through WPI’s interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum. I am truly energized by the prospect of getting to know the members of the WPI community and their aspirations, of working together to expand WPI’s impact, and raising the profile of this great university. I look forward to many productive years of collaboration, and I can’t wait to get started.”

Leshin succeeds Dennis D. Berkey, who served as WPI’s 15th president for nine years, concluding his service to the university last May. Since June 2013, Philip B. Ryan, former chairman of the WPI Board of Trustees, has been serving as interim president.


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