Worcester Polytechnic Institute President Laurie Leshin has been named director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and will leave the school at the end of the academic year to pursue the new role.

Leshin, a geochemist and space scientist who holds masters and doctoral degrees from the California Institute of Technology, was an official at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center before becoming WPI’s president in 2014. She was the first woman to lead WPI. Likewise, she will be the first woman to lead NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.

The Jet Propulsion Lab is a federally funded research and development center based at Caltech. The lab specializes in building and operating robotic spacecraft that explore the solar system.

“Laurie Leshin stood out in an exhaustive international search because of her profound commitment to people, her strategic approach to scientific and technological opportunities, her deep appreciation of NASA’s leadership in space exploration and Earth science, her mastery of complex organizations, and her ability to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers,” Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum said in a statement.

In a tweet, Leshin said she was honored to accept the new position, adding she’s “grateful to the WPI community for the support these past eight years.”

WPI said its board will soon vote on an interim president. “We know that this comes at a time when strong and consistent leadership is more important than ever,” the school said in a statement.

The announcement comes as WPI’s campus mourns the death of seven students since July 2021, including two this month. The school says at least three of the deaths have been suicides.

WPI officials say they’re urgently trying to provide mental health resources to students and staff. The school has established a mental health and well-being task force and expanded campus programs on managing stress. The university also plans to open a center for well-being this year that will teach students about stress management and fostering social connections.