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Nancy Jackson

Nancy Jackson, PhD

We all experience moments that can change the course of our lives. These catalysts can be collective; changing hundreds or thousands of lives in an instant and others can be intensely personal and significant events that nobody but you will ever understand.
A catalyst in the scientific world means much the same as it does in general terms. It is something that makes something else happen. A catalyst makes a reaction go faster and with less energy and waste product. One of the first uses of catalysts was to make better fuels; heating crude oil over catalysts to make gasoline.
Like most people, my life has been shaped by catalysts and series of events and circumstances that have shaped me into the person I am today. I was born in 1956 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin to a Seneca father and a Caucasian mother. My parents, who are both ministers, strongly believe in the power learning. Both of my grandmothers earned master’s degrees, which was very unusual for the time and so my parents encouraged my brother and I to continue the legacy of education in my family. My parents also devoted their lives to social service. Perhaps it was their involvement in the community that first sparked my interest in politics.
When I was sixteen I spent a quarter in Washington, DC as an aid in a senator’s office, and soon after that I entered my freshman year at George Washington University as a political science major. Ironically, I did not enjoy my political science class at all. I found myself having more fun in my required chemistry class. I had liked chemistry in high school, but never followed through with it. By the end of the semester, my grades in chemistry were much higher than political science, and the chemistry professor encouraged me to continue with my scientific studies. It was my teacher’s support that became the first catalyst in propelling me towards a career in science.
In my sophomore year I pursued more science classes, but I became overwhelmed fairly quickly, especially by a pre-calculus class I was having difficulty with. I began to think I was crazy for pursuing science, that I had never been that great a student and basically that I just couldn’t do it. My lack of self-confidence became so strong that I actually dropped out of school!
When I went back to school the following spring, I returned to my political science major but was required to take a statistics class. The math came so easily that in the end, I didn’t even have to take the final exam because my average was so high. Later in the year I repeated the same pre-calculus class and did very well. Having the self-confidence gained by the statistics class was the catalyst for my success and I went on to graduate with a degree in chemistry.
Despite my degree, I still didn’t think of myself as a “science” person. After working in the education department of the American Chemical Society, I decided that I needed to see whether I could really be a scientist or not. I entered a master’s program in chemical engineering. It was in graduate school at University of Texas, Austin that I found how much I loved research and how much of a scientist I really am.
My fascination with research propelled me to pursue a Ph.D. I continued with my studies at University of Texas where I worked in the field of catalysis, experimenting with catalysts that could make coal, natural gas and bio-mass (like trees, shrubs, hay etc.) into liquid diesel fuels.
After completing my Ph.D. in 1990, I went to work as a research chemist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At Sandia I kept on with my work in catalysis and eventually became the manager of the Chemical and Biological Imaging, Sensing and Analysis Department.
My work at Sandia has provided a way for me to combine my interest in politics with science. The research and funding at Sandia is closely tied to national policy. Having a good understanding of the political process has made navigating my job easier on all levels.
For example, the events of September 11, 2001 were a catalyst for a new wave of research at Sandia. We have been working closely with the Department of Homeland Security on issues of national security including developing new technology to locate weapons of mass destruction and researching methods of combating biological warfare. The added urgency of our work has truly shown me the global effect a single catalyst can have.
The influence of our parents, encouragement from a teacher and even world events, can help shape the direction of our lives. However, throughout my life I have learned that it is believing in yourself that will be the true catalyst for your success. Never give up. You will always find allies and support along the way.