"People think I am, like, some valedictorian," India Jackson said with a laugh Wednesday. "No, I'm not. I am just driven and ambitious."
This summer, Jackson, 32, is headed to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she will be an intern at Nasa, researching solar flares and their effect on astronauts. But that's not the most interesting part of the story.
She is a single mother who is getting her doctorate in physics at Georgia State University in Atlanta. And to cover the costs of travel and housing, a cousin, Dasha Fuller, set up a campaign on GoFundMe. Within 24 hours, the campaign reached its US$8,000 goal (overshooting it a bit, actually, for a total of US$8,510) and closed. Jackson said it would not be right to accept more than she needed.
"We choose to become scientists to make history," she said. "Not money."
So May 30, Jackson and her 11-year-old daughter, Jewel Henry, will catch a plane to Houston in what the mathematician said she could describe only as a longtime dream. As a young woman growing up in Decatur, Georgia, she first took to science in the ninth grade, when she applied to take classes at the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta. There, she learned about astronomy and spent hours at the planetarium.
Later, at Georgia State University, which she graduated from in 2010 with a bachelor's degree in math, her path was more circuitous. She switched her studies multiple times: from math to biology, then to early-childhood education. "I tell students the point of the first two years is to understand who you are as a person," she said. In her third year, she got pregnant. (She married and is getting a divorce.) She decided to return to her math studies.
"With me becoming a new mother, my best friend said, 'Why don't you do what you love?' " Jackson recalled of the time.
Unsurprisingly, she said she was a fan of the The Big Bang Theory, Star Wars and anything science fiction-related. She finished her master's degree in 2013 and began teaching college math and calculus. She has been working toward a doctorate in physics since 2017, but math is still what comes most naturally. "It's like a recipe," she said.
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Jackson says she expects to spend her internship studying solar flares and their effect on satellites and astronauts who work at the International Space Station or, later, will travel to Mars. "We use mathematical statistics to predict when and where these events will happen," she said. "I am concerned about the impact they will have in the universe."
The stipend she got from Nasa was not enough to cover expenses, she said. So, the money from the GoFundMe campaign will cover the cost of travel, 10 weeks of lodging and US$300 for a summer membership at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Houston for her daughter and US$100 a week for food and gas.
She hopes the internship will lead to a fellowship at NASA so she does not have to teach lab classes anymore to make ends meet. For now, she said, she is just happy to be going to Houston for the summer.
"I didn't think random strangers would help me," she said. "I am still amazed."