The following article is an excerpt from Symmetry Magazine - a joint publication of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Symmetry receives funding through the US Department of Energy.
By Marbella Daniel
Dr. Helen Jackson
As a child, Helen Jackson spent her time reading the biographies of scientists, pushing ahead of her grade level in her studies, and conducting experiments with what she could find around her home.
“Marie Curie’s biography was my inspiration,” Jackson says. “By the time I was 12 years old I had made up my mind that I wanted to be a nuclear physicist.”
One reason she focused so much on her studies: It took her mind off of her personal life. “I was in a very difficult personal home situation, and so studying was my refuge,” she says.
Throughout most of her childhood, Jackson’s parents were absent, Jackson says. They separated when she was 5 years old. Jackson’s mother was hospitalized for extended periods of time and was later diagnosed with severe dementia and placed in a nursing home. Her father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after his military service and had no options for treatment. Jackson and her three siblings were passed between relatives and friends.
Between the ages of 10 and 16, Jackson took up a paper route and worked at a five-and-dime discount store to support herself. Around age 14 she began working as a maid. At lunch time at school, she offered tutoring to her classmates. “I was able to come up with enough to buy myself lunch doing this,” Jackson says.
Despite her difficult home situation, Jackson excelled in her courses throughout secondary education. When she took the SAT, she received a perfect score.
Jackson received offers from colleges across the country. She says she planned to attend MIT, but she did not have the guidance to follow through with her decision. Assuming she could accept offers later, she instead married young and had her first child. The relationship between Jackson and her first husband turned abusive, however, so she says she made the decision to leave.
Still driven to become a physicist, a few years later she started her undergraduate education. Toward the end, Jackson found a job at NASA as a systems engineer intern working on NASA’s satellite systems. In 1983 Jackson applied for the position of mission specialist astronaut.
During her time at NASA, she met her second husband. Her eldest son was struggling in public school, so she decided to cut back her hours at work and try educating her children herself through homeschooling.
Jackson was working her way into a contract position and eight months pregnant when she received an important phone call from NASA: She had been selected for the astronaut program, an opportunity that could make her the first black woman in space. She declined. “I stepped away from the phone and wanted to faint. It was painful, it was a disappointment,” Jackson says.
What Jackson didn’t know was that this decision probably saved her life. In 1986, the Challenger Space Shuttle, with her class of astronauts on board, exploded. None of the astronauts survived.
For the next few years, Jackson focused on homeschooling her children while also tutoring and mentoring children in public and private school.
In 2004 Jackson decided to continue educating herself. She enrolled at Fisk University, where she received her master’s degree in physics. She accepted an invitation to join the Fisk-Vanderbilt bridge program and was given an advisor, options for additional tutoring, funding to cover the costs of scientific conferences, and aid with a smooth transition from a historically black university to a predominantly white institution.
“There is a history of hostile climates for African American students, particularly in the subjects like physics, at PWIs. There is often not a welcoming environment,” Jackson says. "[In the bridge program] it was good to know that you have someone standing behind you that’s supportive."
In 2007 Jackson’s husband died. Finding herself suddenly a widowed mother of five facing expensive medical bills to take care of one of her children, among other issues, Jackson left Vanderbilt.
By invitation, Jackson began working as a full-time research assistant with the Air Force. While there, she authored multiple publications and developed a patent for a method of radiation-hardening semiconductors that the Air Force still uses today. In 2014, she finished her PhD in applied physics in the nuclear engineering program at the Air Force Institute of Technology.
Jackson now works with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in the realms of artificial intelligence and national security. She continues to tutor and mentor students through the New York Academy of Sciences and other organizations.