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Investiture Address: France Córdova

Director, National Science Foundation

June 8, 2019

Thank you, Dean Ray, for that generous welcome. And a special thanks to you, Provost Helble and Thayer School for the Robert Fletcher award. I am honored to join the company of past awardees, many of whom are colleagues and friends. 

Congratulations graduates — you did it! You are receiving a degree from an extraordinary university, and — what’s more — from a unique college of engineering. The emphasis on an interdisciplinary curriculum, which integrates engineering and the liberal arts, the focus on innovation and entrepreneurship at the graduate level, and the stunning achievement of gender parity at the undergraduate level, make this School a model for engineering schools everywhere.

And congratulations to parents, family members, and friends. I feel your pride. I have sat in your seats — as a graduate, as a parent, and as a friend. And, as a child … I and my 11 siblings cheered as our mom graduated from college at the age of 40.

I’d like to share with our graduates some lessons I’ve learned along my own path. To set the context, a little about my background…

My own engineering experience was building rocket and satellite payloads for astronomical observations while I was a graduate student at Caltech, and later when I was on the faculty of the physics department at the University of California, Santa Barbara UCSB. One such experiment was launched on a large satellite called XMM-Newton from French Guiana in 1999. I was fortunate to witness the launch in person, and the experiment is still returning good data 20 years later!  

XMM-Newton was a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, and I was the co-PI on the UV-Optical Monitor telescope. I was in charge of the digital processing unit that was the “brains” of the experiment. I have always recognized that observational astronomers need to be part engineers, as so many things can go wrong when doing observations at a telescope. I’ve been on mountaintops all over the world, and when things went wrong, we headed to the machine shop to fix them. The same is true for rocket launches, where it is crucial to know every aspect of your payload and how it integrates into the rocket electronics. 

Resourcefulness is one of many traits developed in being an engineer. This was reinforced later, when I was Chief Scientist of NASA. The first mission on my watch was the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, which was unknowingly launched with fuzzy vision which distorted the images it took of the universe. It took imaginative engineers, computer scientists, and astrophysicists working together to come up with the perfect solution to restore Hubble’s sight and make it NASA’s most well-known, beloved mission.

Throughout my life and career, I’ve worn many hats. My path to this podium has not been linear. It was shaped by opportunity and the choices I’ve made.  

Once, when my thesis adviser wanted to recommend me to be a Shuttle astronaut mission specialist, a friend said, “you’re too old for that!” I was 30 at the time! Never mind the many astronauts we know of who are over 50! Boardrooms, mission control centers, and yes — even space stations — are filled with people of different ages, backgrounds, and skill sets!

About a year later, I set a personal goal to run the Boston Marathon. Another friend cautioned me against it, saying I was “too inexperienced.” Well, I ran it anyway! My story was even featured in a Toronto newspaper because I happened to run alongside a reporter who found it interesting that someone with so little running experience would jump into such a demanding race. I didn’t finish in the top bracket of course, but I did finish, and I have a certificate to prove it — not to my naysayers but to myself. Only because I knew when NOT to listen. 

I’m glad there were no naysayers around when I chose to pursue a PhD in physics. I had just completed my bachelor’s degree in English and was well on my way to another career. At the time, English seemed as far away from studying the universe as the stars themselves, but I was full of hope. You see, as a young girl I was discouraged from going into science by teachers and family. Negative comments as I was starting a new path in physics would have brought back all that doubt. I hid from all the potential naysayers, and stayed focus on my goal of becoming a scientist.

Today, I’m thrilled I followed my passion, even though I started in my mid-twenties. It led to a variety of deeply gratifying roles — from being a professor and administrator in academia and a researcher at a national lab, to serving on the boards of corporate and nonprofit entities and working for the federal government at three science agencies.  

Had I listened only to other voices, and not my own, I might have missed out on, well, everything — my life. And to this day, the night sky that entranced me as a child and enticed me again as a young English graduate is still my home and a constant source of wonder. 

Independent thinkers are anything but predictable. And grooming them, as many of your parents and professors will tell you, is far from an exact science. It often means traveling an uncertain path. Perhaps you, too, took a sudden turn, and found the result to be a new and different life or personal growth. I can tell you from my own journey that, in the moment, many of those turns felt like stumbles, but they can turn out to be shortcuts — to your own unique destination.    

What does all this really mean to a room full of doers?

Perhaps the best assurance I can offer today is that the training you’ve had here at Dartmouth is something you’ll carry with you into whatever career you might choose. I’ve carried my undergraduate degree in English with me as I’ve pursued a career in science and administration. It’s made me a better, clearer thinker and writer. It’s made me appreciate the life of ideas, and the power of articulating them. Everything you’ve learned here at Dartmouth is something important in your tool box, something you will draw upon later and reinforce the uniqueness of your contributions. And, you know what? With that toolbox, you are ready for anything!

What a background you have! My life experience has taught me that fundamental research in engineering is vital to addressing many of our most critical challenges, from smart manufacturing to resilient infrastructure to sustainable energy systems. Engineers anchor lofty ideas and turn them into concrete solutions.  

Perhaps the timeliest message I can leave with you is this reminder of the opportunity and responsibility you now bear — because our lovely, fragile planet — and the very real people it serves — need you now more than ever. We need your optimism and enthusiasm. We need new voices representing every background. We need your willingness to think outside of traditional paradigms and to form new and unconventional partnerships. 
We need rebels who know HOW to listen, and then follow their own inner voice.

Rebels like the engineers of the Event Horizon Telescope who were unfazed by the technical challenge of imaging a never-before-seen black hole. Rebels, who in an unprecedented feat that coupled imaginative science and engineering, linked together eight ground-based telescopes around the world to create an Earth-sized telescope to do the job!

We need rebels like Rai Weiss — leading a global team of both scientists and engineers — who improved, over decades, the laser interferometric technique that led to the discovery of gravitational waves on Earth.

Or rebels like your very own Dean Ray and the engineers at “Cool Robots at Dartmouth,” who are developing new models and control techniques for robots moving through snow or sand. Her research team and robots have supported glaciologists by surveying hundreds of kilometers of crevasse-laden ice sheets, aided volcanologists in mapping the ice caves at the base of Mount Erebus in Antarctica, and helped scientists study the grain structure of snow in the Arctic. Last night I had the privilege of meeting many Thayer faculty who have dedicated themselves to listening to Arctic changes. 

We need rebels because maintaining the status quo won’t cut if for the challenges of your generation, or the generations to come. I know, as engineers, you are all about improving on design, and the innovative curriculum and outreach here at Dartmouth have put you at the forefront of a true cultural shift in science.  

Today, the emphasis is on “convergence,” bringing together researchers from different disciplines to solve pressing challenges. This concept has changed the way we fund at NSF. We actively invite researchers to think outside their disciplinary boxes about how they can approach solutions to grand challenges by widening their circle of computational, laboratory, theoretical, and experimental partners.  

As graduates of Thayer, you are already trained to think outside the box and well poised to practice convergence. Trusting in that training is your first step, and the next is to trust your intuition.  That inner voice will be your guide along the many twists ahead, helping you to decide which counsel is right or wrong for you.  

Looking back, it is the advice I have NOT taken that has shaped the course of my life. That same independence of thought has inspired our most recent breakthroughs in science and engineering. So, Class of 2019, I invite you to listen, thoughtfully, to everyone — especially to yourself! There is only one person who can engineer your future. 

You are closing an extraordinary chapter of your lives. You are ready for the next.   

Congratulations graduates!