Today’s graduate students, like those showcased in our Winter 2015 issue, often become tomorrow’s scientific leaders. The careers of France Córdova (PhD ’79), Arati Prabhakar (MS ’80, PhD ’85), and Ellen Williams (PhD ’81), offer dramatic examples of how true that can be.
These women now lead three of the nation’s top science, technology, and research agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
Since 2014, Córdova has led the NSF, a $7 billion-a-year federal agency that supports fundamental research and education in all the nonmedical fields of science and engineering.
Córdova studied physics as a graduate student at Caltech, working on X-ray astronomy. It was a time she remembered in a recent interview in the Caltech Alumni Association’s publication, Techer, as “rigorous, collaborative, and fun. … As graduate students, you were able to learn from and work right alongside all of these incredible minds, like theoretical physicists Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman.”
After Caltech, Córdova built an impressive resume that included working for a decade at Los Alamos National Laboratory; leading the department of astronomy and astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University; and becoming the youngest person and first woman to hold the position of NASA chief scientist. Over those and subsequent years, the positions she held shifted from those focused primarily on research to more administrative roles, eventually including vice chancellor for research at UC Santa Barbara, chancellor of UC Riverside, president of Purdue University, and chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution before being named as the NSF’s director.
Prabhakar serves as director of DARPA—an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense that develops emerging technologies for use by the military and whose achievements include the creation of ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet.
Prabhakar first joined DARPA in 1986 after receiving her doctorate in applied physics from Caltech. Her initial job with the agency was to manage programs in advanced semiconductor technology and flexible manufacturing, and to manage demonstration projects to insert new semiconductor technologies into military systems.
She discussed how Caltech prepared her for that role in a 2011 interview with ENGenious, a publication of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. In that interview, she said that “having a very solid technical foundation really helped with judgments I had to make in my career. … I was investing in people that I thought were going to make big leaps forward in technology. I wasn’t in the lab doing the work, but I was trying to exercise good judgment about where real breakthroughs might come from. That wouldn’t have been possible without the solid technical foundation I received at Caltech.”
In 1993, President Bill Clinton named Prabhakar director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a post she held until 1997, when she stepped down to pursue entrepreneurial interests in the Silicon Valley, funding and managing engineers and scientists to create new technologies and businesses. She returned to DARPA, this time as its director, in 2012.
Prabhakar appears in a 2015 video describing DARPA’s mission here.
Since 2014, Williams has served as director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a federal agency modeled after DARPA and tasked with promoting and funding research and development of advanced energy technologies.
In 2014, as part of the kickoff to President Thomas F. Rosenbaum’s inauguration, she participated in a panel discussion at Caltech on “Science and the University-Government Partnership,” in which she described ARPA-E’s job as similar to that of a stockbroker, putting money into investments—in this case technologies—that will perform solidly but also rounding out the portfolio with riskier investments that nonetheless “have the potential to really win big.”
She said, “We have to take some risks [because] traditionally something like 20 percent of the initial investment of a technology portfolio will give 80 percent of the benefits—you just don’t know which are the 20 percent.”
Prior to joining ARPA-E, Williams served as the senior adviser to the United States Secretary of Energy and as the chief scientist for BP, where she was responsible for the company’s long-range scientific plans and activities as well as its major university research programs around the world.
Before working in industry and for the federal government, Williams built a 30-year career in academia, conducting research in nanoscience. She joined the faculty at the University of Maryland shortly after receiving her doctorate in chemistry from Caltech in 1981 and is currently on leave from her position of Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Physics and the Institute of Physical Science and Technology there.