Black History Month Inspiration: Dr. Aprille Ericsson-Jackson, Engineer, Pioneer
As February moves forward this year, I’ve done a bunch of digging into inspirational African American writers, scientists, mathematicians, and historical figures throughout the past several hundred years. I could talk about Madam C.J. Walker, who started a company to educate and sell hair and beauty products for African American women in the early 1900s. I learned about Dr. Rebecca Cole, the second black woman to graduate from medical school; she worked with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (the first white woman doctor) in New York and taught hygiene and childcare to families in poor neighborhoods.
There are African American athletes I grew up hearing about: Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who was an Olympian and World Champion several times over in long jump and heptathlon, was someone I watched compete whenever I could. Sports Illustrated for Women named her the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century; I joined track in high school because of her. I wasn’t any good, but she inspired me anyway. Tennis player Zina Garrison won my heart when I was watching Wimbledon one summer: she beat Monica Seles and Chris Evert to reach the finals of Wimbledon. She was an amazing athlete, and so much fun to watch–and she inspired me to join the tennis team at my high school. Again, I wasn’t very good, but I kept going because she did.
One of my fondest dreams for as long as I can remember is to be an astronaut. It may have had something to do with my love of all things Star Trek, but most of it dealt with the US Space Program and NASA. I watched shuttle and rocket launches obsessively, thought about going to the Air Force Academy, read books and articles, and wrote letters to astronauts. I hit a snag my junior year of high school when I took chemistry and trigonometry–and developed a bit of a mind block about them, because they were harder than anything I’d tried to learn previously. I admired Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, school teacher Christa McAuliffe, and last year’s GeekGirlCon ‘14 Keynote Speaker, Wendy Lawrence.
I saw the name of engineer Dr. Aprille Ericsson-Jackson come up in my research this month on a list of (mostly male) African American scientists and inventors. This is the basic information I learned about Dr. Ericsson-Jackson:
- Born in 1963, raised in Brooklyn, NY
- Graduated from MIT in Aeronautical-Astronautical Engineering
- Earned a Masters in Engineering
- First woman to earn a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace Option, from Howard University
- Earned a PhD from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
- Has worked with and for NASA since her undergraduate years
- Throughout her school and professional career, has won many awards and competitions
- Elected to the Howard University Board of Trustees in September 2004
Dr. Ericsson-Jackson was just beginning her master’s degree at Howard University when I started high school–which is why I hadn’t heard of her until very recently. By the time she started making a name for herself, I had sloughed off my dreams of becoming an astronaut, and stopped doing a lot of my own research.
Dr. Ericsson-Jackson graduated with her undergraduate degree in 1986, which was the year of space shuttle Challenger disaster. I remember hearing about it on the radio when I was in school, and I clearly recall my parents talking about the possibilities of what had happened: instrument error, operator error, or sabotage of some kind. I also remember Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars plan, the one where he wanted to have a system of satellites in place that would shoot down any missiles shot toward the United States. That scared me a lot as a child, and still does as an adult. Dr. Ericsson-Jackson said one of my favorite things about her work: “It is extremely important to me to that the projects I work on are not destructive.” [Source]
To date, Dr. Ericsson-Jackson has worked on myriad projects for NASA. Here are just a few of them; I don’t pretend to understand any of them, but they sound amazing!
- Helped develop a fiber optic laser gyroscope at NASA’s Applied Physics Laboratory
- Created a database for EVA neutral buoyancy activities performed at NASA Johnson Space Center with the Space Systems Laboratory
- Her Senior Project was on Manned Mars Mission crew systems specialist for interplanetary vehicles
- Was an attitude control systems analyst for MAP – Microwave Anistropy Probe (launched June 30, 2001)
- Satellite projects XTE-X-Ray Timing Explorer, TRMM-Tropical Rain Forest Measurement Mission and TRACE-Transition Region & Coronal Explorer
In her personal life, Dr. Ericsson-Jackson has always been very active. She played on her high school’s basketball team, and was a clarinet player in the high school band, science club, and honors club. She plays softball, co-ed flag football, and continues to play basketball, as well as traveling the country as a motivational speaker. Dr. Ericsson-Jackson and her husband, Matt, recently had a daughter named Arielle. Though she has applied for the astronaut program at NASA, her asthma and a knee issue prevented her from being accepted outright; at this time she has decided to focus more on her family, as opposed to trying to get off the planet.
So how impressively awesome is Dr. Aprille Ericsson-Jackson? She was the first African American woman to earn a PhD from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She still works for NASA, and she advocates for education for young girls–especially those young girls of color, girls who have disabilities, girls living in poverty, and girls who are learning English as a new language: “I feel obligated to help spur the interest of minorities and [women] in the math, science and engineering disciplines; without diversity in all fields, the United States will not remain technically competitive.” [Source]
If I had known about Dr. Ericsson before this month, I would know a lot more about her than I’ve found thus far. If I had known about Dr. Ericsson-Jackson when I was in high school and considering aeronautical-astronautical engineering myself, my life might have turned out very differently. We all need more role models like her!
Is there someone who comes to mind when you think of inspirational leaders during Black History Month? I’d love to hear about them!
And remember to buy your passes for GeekGirlCon ‘15 now; join us there and we can learn more about our inspirations together!