06/25/2014 01:41 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

Leadership Lessons From Science

France A. Córdova is the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is responsible for advancing scientific discovery and technological innovation. She previously served as chair of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents, president of Purdue University, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, and as chief scientist at NASA.

Córdova spoke about her experiences and her current role leading the NSF with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q. What drew you to the world of science?

I was curious about the nature of stars and the galaxies. Those questions captivated me as a young person. The other kinds of questions that captivated me were about the nature of matter. When I was growing up, everything was about the atom and there were a lot of discoveries that still had to be made about particles within nuclei. Thinking about those questions just resonated with me. I didn't have science role models as a young girl, and it wasn't until I actually graduated from college with a degree in literature that I realized I could be anything that I wanted to be.