Joan Centrella, director of WVU’s Bridge Science and Technology Policy, Leadership, and Communications Initiative, was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the agency, on March 31.
The medal is awarded to those who display distinguished service, ability or courage, and have personally made a contribution representing substantial progress to the NASA mission. NASA stated that it awarded Centrella the honor “for a distinguished career of outstanding service to NASA, through scientific accomplishments and inspired leadership.”
“This award came as a real surprise to me,” Centrella said. “I know the esteem in which it is held at NASA, and I was humbled to realize that my colleagues at NASA had nominated me and that I had been selected for this honor.”
“At NASA, there is no higher honor than the Distinguished Service Medal,” WVU President Gordon Gee said. “My dear friend, astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn was a recipient. I am thrilled that WVU’s own Dr. Joan Centrella has received this award for her stellar work as a NASA administrator and astrophysicist. She is doing equally stellar work at WVU strengthening our capacity in science and technology policy. This recognition of Joan demonstrates the quality of people WVU recruits and retains. The sky is truly the limit for what we can achieve together as we fulfill our land-grant, R1 mission.”
Growing up in a small industrial town in Connecticut, Centrella had the opportunity to see a part of an astronaut’s backpack that her father had worked on, which led to her becoming greatly inspired by NASA.
“I am a first-generation college student on my father’s side of the family,” Centrella said. “NASA inspired me to look up at the stars, and eventually to become an astrophysicist.”
As director of WVU’s Bridge Initiative, Centrella works with faculty, staff and students across the University to bridge their science and technology expertise to West Virginia’s national, state, and local policymakers.
“WVU is a special place: a Research 1 university with a strong land-grant mission,” she said. “The faculty and staff are keenly interested in increasing the impact of their research to serve the public good. The students are passionate about making a difference in the world through their studies and research. In the Bridge Initiative, we help them to engage with the policy arena, bringing their knowledge and expertise to the service of decision makers.”
Fred King, vice president of research at WVU, said the NASA designation is not a major surprise, as he and other University leaders were aware of her dedication to the advancement of science when they invited her to join WVU in 2019.
“Joan has been a great addition to our University,” King said. “Her commitment to advancing science and technology, particularly in the public sphere, is truly exceptional and adds another dimension to WVU as an R1. We are extremely proud of her for earning this prestigious award.”
Prior to joining NASA, Centrella was a professor of physics at Drexel University.
“I really loved being a professor. I am fascinated by physics and astrophysics, and all the discoveries being made. I also know how important learning is in my own life, so it was a true privilege to be part of a university community, to teach, mentor, and do research.”
Centrella also served as the deputy director for the Astrophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. While there, she formed and led strategic planning teams and supported cross-disciplinary science, partnering with other Goddard science divisions and reaching out across boundaries to engage colleagues in the Engineering Directorate.
“While at NASA, I came to appreciate the importance of institutional leadership and administration in reaching scientific and technical goals as well as in helping others succeed in their own careers. Stepping up to these roles at NASA allowed me to work on strategic priority-setting, develop and strengthen our organizations, enable our scientists to progress in their careers, and broaden my own scientific horizons.”
Centrella also served as the chief of Goddard’s Laboratory for Gravitational Physics and led a research group that achieved a major breakthrough in simulating the gravitational waves produced by the merger of two black holes.
This was a major success and, as a result, NASA awarded her the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 2007 with the citation, “For ground-breaking work in the simulation of gravitational wave signals from merging black holes.”
Centrella said she is moved that the NASA Distinguished Service Medal was awarded to her because it encompasses two aspects of her career that are very meaningful to her: being a scientist and leading people and institutions.
“I am very grateful and, quite simply, amazed that I have come so far. I know my father would be proud.”