How France Córdova Is Pushing Science’s Frontiers

Dr. Gabriela González Eddy Perez

Dr. France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, said the recent mammoth discovery that proved Albert Einstein’s prophetic gravitational waves was pretty much an accident.

The Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Louisiana – LIGO for short – only opened in September. Just a few weeks into operation, researchers found evidence of gravitational waves rippling through space-time, the result of two black holes that collided over one billion light years away.

“We hadn’t expected to hear this kind of news so soon,” she said. “The Advanced LIGO had just been deployed a couple months ago. A team of scientists were just doing an engineering run when this was first discovered.”

Dr. France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation
Dr. France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation. Ivy Kupec

While she is an astrophysicist herself, she did not make the discovery. But as head of the National Science Foundation, Córdova made sure that the complex, ambitious project that had no guarantees of working was funded. The NSF covers nearly one-quarter of federal funds for university research. From creating nano cancer detectors to discovering evidence of a supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park, the NSF funds researchers like mathematicians, biologists and environmentalists throughout the country.

Related: Gravitational Waves: Ripples in Space-Time Detected For First Time

Before leading the NSF, Dr. Córdova achieved international prominence in several positions, among them as NASA's chief scientist in the early 1990s. After that she held positions in prestigious universities and institutions such as chancellor at the University of California- Riverside and later as president of Purdue University. President Barack Obama nominated her to head the NSF, and she was sworn in March 31, 2014.

Córdova's affinity for science began when she was a child. Born in Paris to American parents - her father is Mexican-American - she said her attraction to understanding the universe is “in her DNA."

“I was driven by some inner force that wanted to know and understand nature and the universe," Córdova said. "You have to be selective about the voices you listen to.”

“Almost all of us would say our mom and dad helped succeed, and I am no different," she said. "There is something in our genes that helps us with our drive, handwork and ethic."

While her parents supported her career in the sciences, she said her professors at the prestigious California Institute of Technology helped her find her stride and persevere and overcome gender biases.

“I encountered the usual people along the way that, because I was a woman, said science was too tough a career to go into,” she said. “But along with the help of my teachers and colleagues, I was driven by some inner force that wanted to know and understand nature and the universe. You have to be selective about the voices you listen to.”

Dr. France A. Córdova, Dr. Gabriela González
Dr. France A. Córdova traveled to Louisiana and stopped by the Livingston facility specifically to congratulate the staff and tour the facility. Here she is with Dr. Gabriela González, who leads the team that made the discovery. Eddy Perez

RELATED: Two Latinas at Forefront of Historic Science Discovery

Córdova spoke to NBC Latino about the recent gravitational wave discovery, considered a profound scientific achievement that draws upon Albert Einstein's theories.

"You can't be a physicist or an astrophysicist and not love the general relativity Einstein gave us; he gifted us all with a new way of thinking," she said. "That is what brings us the imagination we need to do wonderful things."

Córdova credits over 1,000 scientists involved in finding proof of gravitational waves so soon after the Advanced LIGO became operational.

Córdova relied on Dr. Gabriela Gonzales at Louisiana State University - an Argentinian-American astrophysicist who spearheaded the project and worked with talent from than 90 institutions in 15 different countries.

"Discoveries are made by people coming from all backgrounds," Córdova said. "This is a collaboration of over 1,000 people from around the world. International science thrives by being a diverse enterprise that cultivates a richness of ideas."

According to Córdova, last week's discovery catalyzed an even stronger international effort. Laboratories like the Advanced LIGO are already in development in Japan, Germany and Italy.

"This is really an international experiment in every sense," Córdova said proudly. "If we are going to make progress to the next level, which is identifying the locations of gravitational sources, we will need to triangulate with more facilities spread out around the globe."

For young women and Latinas entering STEM field, Córdova said to power past the negative voices to accomplish dreams of breaking into the sciences.

"It takes a lot of perseverance to achieve anything, and you just have to believe in yourself," she said. "You’ll find plenty of people that support you, and some that are not much help at all. You have to be driven by that inner force that follows your own path."

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