Kamili Jackson ’97, and M.S. ’99, mechanical engineering, has witnessed one NASA space launch in person during her nine years at the agency: the Hubble Servicing Mission 4 in 2009.
Jackson was a contracted materials engineer at NASA for that mission, helping the team make decisions on what metals, plastics and ceramics should be used for the craft. And as she watched her hard work blast off and enter orbit, she was filled with satisfaction.
That same year, Jackson co-founded a project that helps high school students take off into careers in engineering – the Future Innovative Rising Engineers (FIRE), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Junior Chapter in Greenbelt.
“We wanted to have a consistent impact on a set of kids,” says Jackson. The FIRE students come from all over Maryland and even Virginia, and they often stay on the team until they graduate from high school and find a college or university. (In 2013, the program began accepting middle school students as well.)
The competition and mentoring in the program is intense. Professional engineers and parents coach participating students through four national competitions in robotics, model rocketry and math. They also teach them coding, software and building techniques, and also facilitate discussions throughout the process. The goal is for the students to design and build their own robots and rockets.
“We get them to learn by doing,” says Jackson. “We want them to take ownership of what they’re learning.”
Her passion for community service blossomed during her undergraduate years at UMBC, where she was a member of the fourth class of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. (She has also served on that program’s alumni advisory board.) Among her long list of extracurricular activities at that time were day-long service projects in Baltimore City and mentoring elementary school kids. She also participated in campus governance in the Student Government Association.
“Vice president of student government was a big one as far as starting to figure out my leadership style,” recalls Jackson, who was elected to the position in her senior year. “Student leadership was one of the best things I did in college because you can be a leader, mess up, experiment, and at the same time make things happen.”
She completed a Ph.D. at The Johns Hopkins University and a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Cape Town. Jackson began working for NASA in 2005. After five years of consulting on space missions, she was hired as a civil servant to work in Safety and Mission Assurance.
Last year, Jackson was promoted to chief safety and mission assurance officer, and she has leads a team that includes experts in reliability, safety, materials, electronic parts, radiation, and contamination. “This is the first time I have a team at work, which is cool because I am able to use all the skills I have been building up outside of work as a leader,” she says.
Leadership is one of the values she is imparting to her FIRE students. One former program participant who enrolled at UMBC, junior Markus-Allen Proctor, mechanical engineering, won third place in the NSBE Science Fair in 2012 as a senior in high school. Now he serves as the vice president of the UMBC NSBE chapter. As a sophomore, his Proctor’s team took third place in the 2014 Cangialosi Business Innovation Competition for creating EduPal – an online time management tool designed for student success.
Jackson wants her students to “catch the bug of winning” so they can push each other to soar even higher each year.
And winning is what they are doing. At the 2014 FIRST LEGO League Robotics competition, Jackson’s FIRE students built a robot designed to rescue people during a natural disaster. At the Awards Luncheon, her students were presented with the First Place Robot Design Award, and before they’d even finished taking photos for that, they heard their team’s name announced again for achieving the Overall Individual Highest Performance in the competition’s Try-Math-A-Lon “Points Race.”
As future engineers and competitors, they had achieved lift off.
— Salma Sparklin ’11