NASA People

Center Snapshot: Lelia Vann
Leila Vann. Image above: Lelia Vann gets a running start on every day, preparing for the competition that's involved in running the Science Directorate. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

A confessed "foodie" who enjoys Belgian beer with dinner out, Lelia Vann copes with calories in the old-fashioned way.

She gets up at 4:30 every weekday morning to run five miles in time to be at work as director of the Science Directorate by 7 a.m.

Weekend runs are six to eight miles.

"It makes me feel good," said Vann, who takes her trek to a YMCA in the cooler months, but has a route along Norfolk's shoreline mapped out when it's warm.

"If I don't run, I feel sluggish all day."

It helps, because she enjoys eating out along Norfolk's Granby Street corridor so much that she moved there three years ago from a waterfront home in Hampton. Her new digs are -- perhaps appropriately -- a condominium carved out of a building atop a restaurant.

"I love living downtown," says Vann, who has thrown herself into the atmosphere, with season tickets at Norfolk's Wells Theater and for Norfolk Admirals hockey games at Scope Arena.

Vann came to NASA at Marshall Space Flight Center upon graduating from Jacksonville State University in Alabama. "I wanted to be an astronaut," she says. "I just always wanted to be one."

As an engineer, working in the agency's space flight program, she decided that the next best thing was learning how and why spacecraft went aloft in the first place. That pushed her toward the University of Arizona, for a doctorate in science.

Then, running was a way to deal with work and academic stress. There also was a competitive motive to massage, so Vann decided to run marathons. Her first was in Huntsville, Ala.

"It took over four hours," she said, shuddering at the memory of a pedestrian pace.

Before long, even 26 miles wasn't enough, so she entered an ultra-marathon and won the women's division of the 50-kilometer Hinte-Anderson Trail event.

Vann no longer runs in races, but that hasn't lessened her competitive streak. It has transferred into a job that requires it.

"I think this is the most competitive group I've ever seen," she said of her directorate. "Scientists are always competing to get their proposals funded. They're always competing for money."

And when they're successful, she knows how to celebrate in Norfolk's ever-changing restaurant scene, be it with shrimp and grits at 219, or nachos at Havana, or tapas at the Empire. And whenever possible washed down with Belgian beer.

And always followed, early the next morning, with a run that keeps the calories at bay and gets her ready for another work day.