When you were a little girl, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I wanted to be a journalist, perhaps a foreign correspondent. Through my early 20s, I maintained the goal of pursuing a journalism career. I accumulated journalism experiences on my resume, working for two newspapers and a magazine and serving as publications director for the Software Publishers Association.
What made you want to be a scientist?
An editor at a newspaper where I interned told me: “Jackie, you have the ability to be a journalist if you want, but if you are good at math and science, then why are you pursuing a career in journalism? Your life will be so much easier if you apply your math and science skills!” I soon decided to heed his advice. At that point, my goal had been to become an environmental journalist covering environmental issues around the world.
Describe your research in five words.
“Prevent illness caused by pollution.”
I decided I could make a more direct impact by developing my scientific knowledge, so I returned to school to earn a master’s degree in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois. Notably, at that point in my life, I vowed I would never marry, have kids, or run a marathon. I now have three sons, two stepsons, and have completed six marathons.
What’s the funniest thing that happened while you were doing research?
Compared to my colleagues at the University of Illinois, I had little prior experience working in a research laboratory. One day, in an effort to reduce laboratory waste, I decided to try recycling pipette tips used to transfer inocula of bacterial cultures by autoclaving (sterilizing) them. I returned to the lab the next day to find an angry note from one of my colleagues asking who was responsible for the molten heap of plastic in the autoclave.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming female researchers in your field?
If you want to have a family, do not delay. Having kids is the best experience of my life, and I am glad I started young, not waiting until my career was well established. Had I not become pregnant with my first child unexpectedly at age 26, I might never have had this wonderful experience.
Also, beware of the Impostor Syndrome. Women tend to feel that no matter how much they learn or how many degrees they hold, they are impostors. Being confident in your expertise helps you better communicate the importance of your research to others.