Particle physics laboratory

President Laurie Leshin leaves WPI for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech

WORCESTER — Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has been named director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a California-based space exploration organization affiliated with NASA.

Leshin, a geochemist and space scientist, will be leaving WPI at the end of the academic year. She was the 16th president of the school, hired in 2014, the first woman to lead WPI.

“We know this comes at a time when strong and consistent leadership is more important than ever,” WPI said in an announcement of Leshin’s departure. “An interim president will soon be elected by the board of directors.”

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a research and development laboratory run by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The program is funded by the federal government through NASA.

Leshin holds an M.Sc. and Ph.D. from Caltech.

She is a former head of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She will be the first female director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Laurie Leshin has distinguished herself in comprehensive international research because of her deep commitment to people, her strategic approach to science and technology opportunities, her deep appreciation of NASA’s leadership in space exploration and the sciences of Earth, its mastery of complex organizations and its ability to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers,” said Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum.

Prior to taking over as head of the WPI, Leshin was the dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

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Meanwhile, space exploration was the focus of Leshin’s attention in a speech Thursday night at the annual meeting of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. Leshin, appearing via Zoom, did not mention his career change during the presentation titled “From Goddard to Bezos and Musk: Our Future in Space.”

Leshin discussed Robert Goddard, a Worcester-born aerospace engineer and physics professor who attended WPI. He dreamed of sending a rocket out of Earth’s atmosphere and exploring beyond the planet 60 years ago.

“He was here in Worcester when he climbed a tree and had this dream and then became a student at WPI,” Leshin said. “And he was more than some kind of nerdy pre-rocket scientist, but he was actually very committed and wrote things like writing songs on WPI was a great student and a great visionary and blew up some things in a lot of his experiences, had far more early failures than successes, and we have patched-up roots to prove it here.”

Leshin highlighted the recent achievements of companies such as SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, or the journeys to the outer reaches of space made by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson.

“The commercial space industry taking more people into space than has ever been possible before, look at the next few years, is just going to go crazy. It’s going to be massively huge, very exciting,” Leshin said. “But the commercial space sector does more than just send tours into space…and that’s very important, by the way, but they do other fascinating things.”