By AUDREY FISCHER
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be successful—unless, like Aprille Ericsson-Jackson, your goal in life is to be an aerospace engineer. Ms. Ericsson-Jackson, the first African American female Ph.D. at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, delivered the Library's 2001 Women's History Month keynote address on March 6.
"Read, read, read, and learn, learn, learn," she advised the audience, which included third-grade students from Watkins Elementary School in Washington, D.C.
In addition to building satellites, delivering motivational speeches, mentoring young people and participating in a wide variety of sports, Ms. Ericsson-Jackson has made the time to read and learn about the technological contributions of women and minorities.
"If I'm a 'giant in science,' it is only because I stand on the shoulders of my forefathers," she said. "We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward."
In a slide show presentation, she highlighted the contributions of some of her role models such as Hypatia (born A.D. 370), the first woman known to have actively participated in the academic fields of math and science); Imhotep (born 2750 B.C.), believed to be the first physician; and pioneers in aeronautics such as Bessie Coleman, who, in 1921, became the first African American to earn a pilot's license.
Just as she draws strength from the past, she is keenly aware of the role she can play in giving others a leg up.
"My greatest challenge is climbing the ladder of success, and pulling others behind me," she said. "If you see a turtle sitting on top of a fence post, you know he had help getting there," she said, invoking a favorite quote from Roots author Alex Haley.
It took some help to get Ms. Erics- son-Jackson from her impoverished Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., to the hallowed halls of NASA, but she supplied a strong math and science aptitude and a fierce drive and determination to succeed. She passed the examinations for the three major technical high schools in the New York area, but was sent to live with her grandparents in Cambridge, Mass., where she graduated from high school with honors. This put her in close proximity to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical-astronautical engineering on a minority scholarship in 1986. That was the year of the shuttle disaster that claimed the lives of all passengers on the Challenger, and most of the jobs offered in aerospace engineering were for strategic defense.
Undeterred from her goal of becoming an astronaut, Ms. Ericsson-Jackson earned a master's degree in engineering from Howard University in 1992 and accepted her current position as an aerospace engineer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland that same year. In 1995 she became the first African American woman to receive a doctorate degree in mechanical engineering from Howard University. She is currently among the 10 percent of applicants (350 of 3,500) who have made it through the first round of interviews for NASA's astronaut training program.
By her own admission, Ms. Ericsson-Jackson is on a crusade to reach out to the largest population of math and science underachievers—young girls.
"It's not that they're incapable," she said. "It's just that they have been unwittingly discouraged from succeeding in these fields."
She cited studies that show that through the fifth grade girls and boys score nearly identically in these areas. In the sixth grade, girls' scores plummet, perhaps in response to the social pressures they experience in middle school.
"This downward spiral is especially severe for girls of color, girls with disabilities, girls living in poverty and girls who are learning English as a new language," she observed.
According to Ms. Ericsson-Jackson, this loss of talent is already having an impact on the U.S. economy.
"The United States has become technologically challenged," she observed. "There are currently 200,000 unfilled jobs in the computer industry alone, and, by the year 2006, it is estimated that the computer field will generate more than a million new openings. The United States cannot afford to lose more than half of its talent and the fresh perspective that women and minorities can bring to these critical fields. We must work together across the boundaries of skin color and gender."
As a woman, it is important to Ms. Ericsson-Jackson that her work have a positive effect on the Earth. Many of the satellites she designs are used to monitor the Earth and collect data that explain Earth's processes. For example, her work on the Tropical Rain Measuring Mission helped observe the effects of El Niño and La Niña, in order to correlate their activity with crop productivity. She also takes pride in the fact that products developed for use in the aerospace industry, such as protective eye lenses and pill-size heart monitors, are also being used to improve our daily lives.
Excited by her work and many outside interests, Ms. Ericsson-Jackson is keenly aware that time is a precious commodity. "Imagine that there is a bank that credits your account each morning with $86,400 but does not allow you to carry over a balance," said Ms. Ericsson-Jackson "Each day it cancels the amount you failed to use each day. Think of that bank account as time, with 86,400 seconds each day. There's no borrowing against tomorrow, so draw out every cent today."
Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.