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Aprille Ericsson-Jackson: Aerospace Engineer, and First African American Woman to Earn PhD’s from Two Renowned Institutions

This profile on Aprille Ericsson-Jackson, an Aerospace Engineer, the first woman to earn a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University, and  the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from NASA GSFC, is the eleventh post in a month-long series of profiles on Black STEM innovators in honor of Black History Month. Today’s post also celebrates Engineers’ Week, by focusing on Ericsson-Jackson. 

Aprille Ericsson-Jackson’s love for science can be traced back to three key moments in her childhood.

“The first was watching the Apollo missions on TV in school in first grade; the second was me winning second place in the 8th grade science fair where I built my first science instrument, and third,” Ericsson-Jackson continued to explain in an interview with USA Science & Engineering Festival, “attending the MIT UNITE science outreach program for minority students which I participated in during the summer of my junior year in high school.1

With her intellectual curiosity sparked by these events, Ericsson-Jackson continued to thrive academically with the support of her mother, and later by the combined efforts of her mother and grandparents when the family moved from New York to Massachusetts1. After moving, Ericsson-Jackson graduated high school with honors and continued her education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she earned a B.S. degree in Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering in 19861,2. Despite the harrowing Challenger Explosion during the year she graduated, Ericsson-Jackson’s determination to become an astronaut persisted.

The next steps on her astronautical journey came in 1992 when Ericsson-Jackson earned her M.S. degree in engineering from Howard University and joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) as an aerospace engineer in robotics, before she transferred into the Guidance Navigation & Control discipline2,3. In 1995, Ericsson-Jackson became the first woman to earn a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University and later also became the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from NASA GSFC3.

Ericsson-Jackson was instrumental in NASA’s growth, especially in deepening the organization’s understanding of our solar system which she focused on in her early career, before working on managing the orientation of spacecraft’s during missions3. Ericsson-Jackson also worked as an Instrument Engineer to develop two instruments used during flights: the ST8 Miniature Thermal Loop Heat Pipe and the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA), an instrument on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter3. In her current role at NASA, Ericsson-Jackson manages a $240 million instrument as the Acting IM for the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2/ATLAS) which measures changes in atmospheric and sea levels3.

Aside from her career at NASA, Ericsson-Jackson teaches mechanical engineering and mathematics as an adjunct professor at Howard University and Bowie State University. Ericsson-Jackson also serves as the New Business Lead for the Instrument Systems and Technology Division (ISTD) of Howard University’s Mechanical Engineering department3.

Ericsson-Jackson’s accomplishments throughout her career have earned her many awards and much recognition. She has been including in a list of the Top 50 Minority Women in Science and Engineering by the National Technical Association, received NASA Goddard Honor Award’s both as an individual and in a group, was elected to the Howard University Board of Trustees in 2004, and received a Science Trailblazers award from the Black Engineers of the Year Award Conference.3

In addition to the aforementioned attention, Ericsson-Jackson garnered for her technical capabilities, she is also highly regarded as a proponent of girls in STEM and girls of color in STEM fields. When asked about the lack of women and minorities in STEM fields, Ericsson-Jackson identified the bulk of the issue being that these populations are “unwittingly discouraged.2

"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," said Ericsson-Jackson in an interview with the Library of Congress. "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. 2"

 

References:

  1. USA Science & Engineering Festival. (2020). Speakers. Retrieved from https://usasciencefestival.org/people/dr-aprille-ericsson/.
  2. Library of Congress. (2001, April). 'Read, Read, Read—Learn, Learn, Learn'. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0104/rocketeer.html.
  3. National Society of Black Physicists. (2019, February 12). Aprille Ericsson-Jackson. Retrieved from https://www.nsbp.org/nsbp-news/bhm-physics-profiles/2019-honorees/131-aprille-ericsson-jackson.