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Former NASA scientist named first woman president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  January 21, 2014 12:44 PM

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A former NASA scientist has been named the first woman president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the university’s 149-year history.

Laurie Leshin, a geochemist and space scientist, was picked as the “unanimous first choice” of the university’s trustees following a six-month, “intensive” search that drew about 200 candidates, campus officials announced Tuesday.

She is scheduled to officially take over as the 16th president in WPI history on July 1, the start of the school’s academic year.

“WPI has been a leading innovator in engineering, technology, and science education for nearly 150 years,” said a statement from 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.”

“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,” she added. “I look forward to many productive years of collaboration, and I can’t wait to get started.”

Leshin, 48, works currently as dean of the school of science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which she joined in 2011.

During her time at Rensselaer, she has also continued to work as a funded science team member for the Mars Curiosity Rover mission and has served two key appointments: on the Advisory Board for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and on the Advisory Board of the US Merchant Marine Academy, officials said.

Leshin spent six years as a senior leader at NASA before joining Rensselaer.

Her work at NASA included helping to run the space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center and helping to oversee the agency’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. She was regularly in charge of thousands of employees and multi-billion dollar budgets, officials said.

She received awards from NASA for leadership and public service to go along with honors for other groups for her achievements in research.

There’s even a piece of our solar system named for her: The International Astronomical Union recognized Leshin’s contributions to planetary science by naming a main belt asteroid “4922 Leshin.”

Her 20-year career has also included working science researcher and professor at Arizona State University and as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, officials said.

Leshin earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Arizona State University in 1987 before later earning a master’s and a doctorate in geochemistry from California Institute of Technology.

“Laurie Leshin is impressive by any measure,” said a statement from trustee board chair Warner Fletcher. “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,” Fletcher added. “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.”

Former WPI president Dennis D. Berkey stepped down in May after leading the school for nine years. Since June, former university trustee board chair Philip B. Ryan has served as interim president.

“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 a statement from 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,” Ryan added. “I expect our university to thrive under her leadership.”

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.

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