Dr. Aprille Ericsson had no idea when her mother enrolled her in kindergarten early — before age 5 — that she would someday grow up to become one of NASA’s elite aerospace engineers and sought-after speakers. More than that, she would become a trailblazer and inspiration for African American women in the fields of aerospace and mechanical engineering. While her career path began after a seemingly innocent move by her mother, Dr. Ericsson’s early start in education was just the first of many key decisions that proved critical during her historic career.
“Our children are capable of so much if we just give them the tools and push them up there. That’s what my mother did for me and that’s what I will do for (her daughter) Arielle,” Dr. Ericsson told a roomful of attentive engineers and engineering students on Feb. 26 as she spoke after receiving the prestigious Washington Award. The award was presented to her by the Western Society of Engineers at a dinner at the Hilton Chicago as the highlight of Chicagoland Engineers Week 2016.
Dr. Ericsson is an aerospace engineer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. In 2014, she assumed a new role in technology development, as the Deputy to the Chief Technologist of the Applied Engineering and Technology Division. In this role, she focused on enabling the development of miniaturized Technology and Small Satellites like CubeSats. Currently, she serves as the NASA GSFC Program Manager for Small Business Innovative Research/Small Business Technology Transfer Research (SBIR/STTR). She was the first African American female to receive a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Howard University; the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, the Aerospace option, from Howard University; and the first African American female to receive a Ph.D. in Engineering at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Her outstanding work over the years has not gone unnoticed either. In 1996 and 1997 she was acknowledged by the National Technical Association for being among the Top 50 minority women in Science and Engineering. In May of 1997, she received the Women in Science and Engineering award for being the best female in the Federal Government in 1998. In February of that year she received a Special Recognition Award at the Black Engineers Award Conference. In April of 2016, she was inducted into the Washington D.C. Hall of Fame for Science and Technology.
Dr. Ericsson went on to explain to her audience just how significant that early decision by her mother was and what her mother’s wisdom has meant to her over the years. “My journey started, probably early, at the tender age of four and a half years old when my mother walked me down our Brooklyn neighborhood to our local school, PS 81,” she recalled, as her mother and family listened along with the audience.
“My mother had me recite any pertinent information to convince the school official that I was a bright young child and that I should be enrolled in kindergarten early. Yes, I do remember that, mom. It was one of my earliest childhood memories. So, I thank you, mommy, for your wisdom, foresight, and fortitude. As a young woman of color, you provided me with a strong portrait of taking pride and ownership of all one does. You instilled in me the value of treating others as you would like to be treated…”
“You also repeated many times, not the word No, but firmly saying: ‘You can do it girl.’”
Dr. Ericsson then took a moment to thank Maria Vedral, president of SilverEdge Software, who provided an electronic Double — a mobile, robotic apparatus with a Skype-type monitor on it — that allowed some of Dr. Ericsson’s family members, who couldn’t be present, to observe her award acceptance and speech live. Vedral sells Doubles through Me and My Double (www.meandmydouble.com).“Me and My Double is really cool,” Dr. Ericsson said. “Thanks, Maria, again.”
Dr. Ericsson then recited a quote that sort of summed up her successful climb in life.“If you see a turtle sitting on the top of a fencepost, you know he had help getting there,” she said. “I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to acquire the various degrees, awards and accomplishments in my life. Many times, I faltered.
“I’ve been called a ‘giant’ in science. If that’s the case, it’s only because I’ve been able to stand on the shoulders of my forefathers.”
“I recall many a late night at MIT when I was trying to study and I couldn’t keep my eyes open just a moment longer. At that moment, I would look above my desk at a poster that my younger sister had bought for me. It was a collage of great African American figures …My ancestors from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and America continue to posthumously play a role in my achievements. I often reflect on how others who came before me were able to achieve academic and engineering excellence from meager and humble beginnings. I would challenge myself to act. How could I not persevere? How could I not forge on? Hopefully, you can find inspiration in the accomplishments of your ancestors as I do.”
“I accept this award on behalf of all my academic and work partners. There are many of them who are just as qualified to be standing here in my stay. A special ‘thank you’ to Howard University and to the faculty of that university who nurtured me and groomed my intellectual capabilities.
“Lastly, I’d like to give my heartfelt gratitude to NASA. As a NASA grad, I can remember when I was first chosen for my internship. I was actually jumping for joy … because I get to work for NASA. I was simply emphatic at the opportunity to be building cutting edge science instruments, and aerospace vehicles. It’s an honor to work with so many bright people. “NASA has invested in me and afforded me many opportunities to contribute as an engineer, to ground-breaking science and discoveries, from sexy science like the Big Bang Theory, to investigating black holes and gravitational waves, to earth science and climate change, to the living of the stars … to space exploration on the moon and Mars.
“They’ve allow me to be a spokesperson for our agency that’s broadening our community’s scientific knowledge. I’m also afforded the opportunity to speak to many young people across our country and the globe. I get to inspire the youth and touch the future and have an impact on the future.”
“Who could have asked for a better job with such a profound legacy? As I pondered the importance of this award, I took a trip down memory lane.”
“I was a child during those radical Sixties and Seventies,” Dr. Ericsson said. “In 1969, a parent brought a small black and white television to my public school. We little first-graders crowded around to watch the Apollo 12 mission land on the moon. It broadened my horizon as a little girl growing up in the Brooklyn hood. It helped plant that seed for dreaming about space travel.”
“Of course, there had been additional influences that helped to grow that seed of interest like Star Trek, Flash Gordon, The Jetsons, and my favorite afternoon show Lost in Space. I remember after watching the first Star Wars movie, racing out of the theater with my arms stretched out, imagining, maneuvering to avoid the Dark Side tie fighters.”
“At that time, we Americans, dreamed big and accomplished much change. Change can happen fast. The vast majority of the efforts, of my generation, born during the struggles to get Civil Rights acts passed, was based on the notion that people should be segregated based on the color of their skin (which I found) to be both morally repugnant and downright ridiculous.”
“Attitudes change quickly, especially after positive development occurs and everyone can see the correctness of the change. This is true and in business as well. Consider how quickly Blackberry went from market leader to having less than four percent of market share or how fast Kodak has transformed from having its film products bought by nearly every family in America to filing for bankruptcy to a firm that almost no one hears from anymore.”
“Our events in space are happening rapidly. As many of you know, the world interest in manned space exploration started as early as the 1950s with different countries vying to be the first in the great space race.”
“For the U.S. in the Sixties, we started the race … and the Apollo and Gemini missions. In the Seventies, it was Skylab. By the 1980s through the 2000s, it was the shuttle (program). In 1992, it was Pathfinder and our Mars rovers. And, in 2000, we have this big lab, the International Space Station. Space travel and science and communications make space travel a routine part of our daily lives.”
“However, I want to remind you that as President Kennedy so eloquently stated: “We chose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it’s easy, but because it is hard.”
“Yes, space travel is hard and dangerous. When I graduated from my undergraduate degree (program) at MIT, it was only four months after the first space shuttle disaster. As a young college graduate in the aerospace field with a strong interest in human space flight, my future was uncertain.At that time, I interviewed at MIT as a lab assistant and was disappointed to learn that I might be working on defense missile projects. Although strategic defense is important, my heart was set on human space flight and the supporting science.”
“The interviewer stated that if I wanted to pick my research projects, I should get a Ph.D. If I could remember the interviewer’s name, I would thank her for planting that seed in me.”
“My research experience as a student nurtured my growth and training for a career in aerospace engineering/rocket scientist. It fueled my desire to explore space. I realized the project work to by continuing with my Ph.D. could open up doors for me. And, it did.”
“Fast forward 30 years. As many of us continue to wonder what that future holds, traveling in space is hard and dangerous. But, when people dream, dare … for a community, we will do hard things like go to Mars. It will require teamwork on an international level.”
“As minorities and women, we are constantly combating negative perceptions. By making a highly uncommon, positive contribution to society, we will change the negative perceptions about our race in general. We must change the perceptions, the attitudes, and the environmental state of society.”
“You must strive to change the perception. To do this, you must start internally and then work outward.”
“The prospect that the ethnic and racial composition of our STEM force will resemble the diversity of the U.S. population is a must. Discrimination affects us all. The U.S. cannot afford to leave out the fresh perspective of more than 50 percent of the population by discriminating against women and minorities. Inclusion of women and minorities is a must.”
“When I work with my science and engineering teams, I know that each member is important. Their different backgrounds, cultures and experiences of the team members gives a different perspective on how to arrive at a solution of the many challenges we face at NASA. It leads me to think if a mammogram would have been so uncomfortable if a woman had designed it.” That point brought a round of applause and laughter.
“I didn’t start out to be the first in the various things that were stated, but if I’m to be a trail blazer and a role model, so be it. I try to represent well for all the others that will come behind. I’m not done yet for we must increase the number of women and minorities, creating new fields of technology in fields like aerospace engineering. We can be anything we want to be regardless of what they tell us. All one has to do is believe in one’s self and one’s dream.”
Agents of change
“We engineers and scientists are agents of change. Every day makes an impact on the future of the world. Our communities and countries are faced with many challenges. We’ve been trained to solve those problems. Continue the tradition that so many of you started in your academic career.
“Consider, embrace, and drive change.
“Several years ago, President Obama eloquently echoed those sentiments to a crowd of college graduates. He stated: ‘The men and women who sat in your chairs 10 years ago, and 50 years ago, they made America powerful. And, there’s no guarantee that the graduates that sit here will in 10 years or 50 years enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that we do. America’s success has never been a given. Our nation’s destiny has never been certain. What is certain? What has always been certain is our ability to shape that destiny. That is what makes us different. That is what makes us Americans.”
“Our ability at the end of the day to surpass all of our differences and all our disagreements will still forge a common future. That task is now in your hands as it is the answer to the question posed about whether a free society can still compete.”
“I believe in you and your willingness to contribute to the country as past generations have. One person can make a difference…”
“Remember John F. Kennedy’s famous statement: ‘And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’
“My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you but together what we can do for the freedom of man. I, like President Kennedy and President Obama, still believe that we can compete and succeed.”
“I’m truly fortunate that in my current NASA position, I can promote and support the development of new technology while stimulating the U.S. economy. The NASA Small Business and Innovative Research Program funds small businesses to create innovative technology that will be infused into our NASA mission. Small businesses are an important stable of our American economy.”
“On the other hand, complex space missions require many people working together to achieve that goal. Small businesses and large are necessary.”
“NASA and the many international space agencies realize that partnerships are essential. Note that the International Space Station research facility has been occupied since the 2000s only through the partnership of 10 to 17 different countries. It takes people with different ideas to come up with unique solutions. It is my experience that as an innovator that when diverse ideas collide, it sparked innovation.”
“Have you ever noticed the Star Trek group was international and interplanetary? Let’s embrace that idea — director Gene Roddenberry’s 1960’s vision of diversity in space.
“Many astronauts have looked back at the earth in all its majesty. They say there are no borders, no walls, no barriers. Let’s embrace that thought.
“Please remove your own internal barriers to embrace the differences and capabilities of each other. For us to go to Mars, we will need everybody now and in the future. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir but I’m going to say it anyway, we must work together on the difference of our skin color, gender, languages, and cultures which are artificial barriers that we mold.”
“Women and minorities and every woman must continue to work together for us to remain technically competitive. Please realize that we’re traveling this journey together, a dream to make this world a better place. We have gone from developing micro technology to nanno technology … These developments in technology will enable us to work on the atomic level.
“The world is constantly changing and moving forward technically. Why can’t we make the change to work together?”
Use time wisely
“I’d like to end with this thought: Imagine that there is a bank which credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day, allows you to keep no cash balance and every evening cancels whatever part of the amount you have failed to use during the day.
“What would you do with it? I would draw out every fund, of course, right? Well, everyone has such a bank. Its name is time. Every morning, it credits you with 867,400 seconds. Every night it writes off as a loss whatever amount you failed to invest. It carries over no balance. It allows no over drafts. Each day opens a new account for you. If you failed to use the daily deposit, the loss is yours. There is no going back. You must live in the present.
“We must make a difference now. We only have the present because our future is not promised. Embrace change to preserve the dream of a better tomorrow.
“As you ponder these statements, please make a conscious decision to leave your positive mark on this world. Consider this: even if you live for a hundred years, your moment in history is brief, a miniscule period when comparing even the age of the earth or the total time of the evolution of the universe which is 4.5 billion years old and 15 billion years, respectively.
“Please remember to live life to the fullest and in a positive, respectful manner because each moment is precious. Don’t forget, you represent your family, community, and the United States of America, and the world. Make us proud. Work together.
“The clock is ticking and you have approximately 28,800 seconds left in today, something like that. That MIT education pays off. Please make the most of today and every day. Shoot for the moon and, even if you miss, you will still be amongst the stars.”
David Persons is freelance writer who spent over 40 years writing for daily and weekly newspapers around the U.S. He currently resides in Fort Collins, CO.
Dr. Aprille Ericsson Bio
Aprille was born the oldest of four daughters in Brooklyn, NY. She spent her childhood growing up in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, specifically, the Roosevelt projects on Dekalb Avenue. She was bussed to the elementary school, P.S. 199 in Brooklyn. She first realized she had an aptitude for mathematics and science during her attendance of Marine Park JHS where she was the only black student enrolled in the Special Progress program. In her senior year of JHS, she won second place in the Science Fair and scored in the 90s on all her regent and citywide exams. She graduated with high honors and was a member of the school band, the girls basketball team, the science club and the honors club. She passed the exams for all of New York’s Technical High Schools: the Bronx School of Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Technical.
At the age of 15 , she moved to Cambridge, MA to live with her grandparents and attended high school at the Cambridge School of Weston. She played basketball and softball in high school and in the Cambridge Recreation Leagues. During her senior year of high school, she was a volunteer Physical Education Teacher for several Cambridge elementary schools. Today she still enjoys playing football, basketball, softball, cycling and tennis. Her coed softball team travels around the country playing.
After graduating from high school with honors she entered college at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she received her Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering. During her undergraduate years at MIT she was involved with several projects that were geared toward manned space flight. These projects involved working with:
- the Applied Physics Laboratory -developing a fiber optic laser gyroscope.
- the Space Systems Laboratory – creating a database for EVA neutral buoyancy data calculated at NASA Johnson Space Center.
- Senior Project – Manned Mars Mission crew systems specialist for an interplanetary vehicle.
These projects generated a strong desire to participate in manned space missions. She felt one way to do this would be to become an astronaut, and she applied for NASA’s astronaut program. She has been placed on a medical review for asthma and knee surgery.
Upon completion of her education at MIT, she was encouraged by her best friend to attend Howard University (HU) in Washington, D.C. There she obtained a Masters of Engineering and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace option. Her research objective at HU has been to develop practical design procedures that can be used in conjunction with optimal digital controllers for future orbiting large space structure systems like the Space Station. Her research at HU has allowed her to travel to Germany, Canada and England to present technical papers. She has won several student paper competitions; the last and most prestigious one was at the 6th International Space Conference for Pacific-Basin Societies were she won first place for the Ph.D. student competition.
Currently, she is working full time as an aerospace engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in the Guidance, Navigation and Control, Design Analysis section. Presently, she is working on a MIDEX project called MAP-Microwave Anisotropy Probe.
Source: NASA (quest.arc.nasa.gov/space/frontiers/ericsson.html)