Perseverance pays off

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An intimate look at how one woman followed her dream and became the Chief Technologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In the fifties and sixties schoolgirls who wanted a career were rare. Very few options were open to girls. School counselors automatically steered girls toward acceptable careers as teachers or nurses.

Living on the continent and receiving an education at private girls' schools in England and Germany was a decided advantage over typical co-ed schools in the United States, and probably saved Barbara Wilson from feeling the pinch other girls felt about a professional career. During that time Wilson's father, a chemist, was stationed abroad with Proctor and Gamble.

Wilson returned to the United States in her junior year of high school and graduated at 15 due to advances in European education. "I received more discouraged than encouragement from teachers," said Barbara Wilson, chief technologist, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Always curious about how things worked, Wilson related, "As a child I was encouraged to follow up on my curiosity. When I got toys as gifts I took them apart. I was around eight years old when I first knew what science was."

The passage of time still didn't make a technology career a 'slam-dunk' for females. "I tried to get a summer job with a technology company. They wouldn't even interview me. So I sold encyclopedias door to door that summer," said Wilson.

Wilson already knew before she decided on Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts that she wanted to attend an all-girls college. She was serious about science and felt it would be too difficult to maintain that interest in a co-ed environment.

"I was the top science major in my class at Mt. Holyoke, best known for its science and chemistry department. They've graduated more women who have gone on to get Ph.D. degrees in chemistry than any other university," said Wilson.

A physicist with a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a bachelor's degree from Mount Holyoke, Wilson joined JPL in 1988 as technical group supervisor in the Microdevices Section and then became manager of the Microdevices Laboratory.

Wilson won the NASA Special Achievement Medal for her contributions to the New Millennium Program. On February 11, 1998, Barbara Wilson was named program manager for the Center for Space Microelectronics Technology in Pasadena, California. Wilson was also appointed JPL's chief technologist.

Barbara Wilson's day, which she describes as frenetic, begins at 8:00 am. Living three miles from JPL, she shares a ride in with her husband, who also works at JPL.

Wilson divides her time between being the chief technologist and manager of the center. She is responsible for programs, operation, and marketing the space center, updating the JPL website, tracking budgets, and has seven program managers that report to her. "I spend a lot of time in meetings, but I delegate a great deal to my managers," said Wilson.

A project Wilson's team is working on is an avionics program that is developing a system on a chip that would fly a spacecraft. The chip is the power source, navigation, communications electronics, and intelligence. "We are all familiar with computers but this is a program that does other things on a chip beside calculations. An example of this program is a micro-gyro," explained Wilson.

"We work with chemical and biological sensors, trying to implement them on a chip. An example of this would be the infrared sensor called a QWIP, short for Quanta Well Infrared Photo-detector. It uses quantum effects based on ultra-thin layers like 10 atoms thick to create new optical properties that don't occur naturally," said Wilson. "We can also use these ultra-thin layers to fabricate lasers and other devices."

From 1994 to 1996, Wilson was the deputy manager during the inception phase of the New Millennium Project. Its first mission was Deep Space One where they flight validated new space technology. A second project launched the earth observation project in November of 1999.

According to Wilson one of the best parts of her day is the brainstorming sessions. "I am just setting up another session in a few weeks about nano and quantum technology. We want to make sure that we are focused on needs at NASA that won't naturally evolve in the commercial sector."

"NASA leads the micro-spacecraft thrust for the national nano-technology initiative. The standard micro-technology approach to computers is running out of headroom. In ten years we will max out the microchip. With the nanochip we are manipulating things the size of molecules. Then we are able to use the same building blocks that nature uses. These technologies will also help us to understand underlying mechanisms in biology," said Wilson. "One of the fun parts of my job is that I get to see the results of what people are achieving in the labs at JPL. We have so many people virtually bubbling over with ideas."

If you are interested in a career in science, according to Wilson, one of the things you must do is know what you are good at and know what you love to do. "In graduate school I was encouraged to be a theoretical physicist. Then I found out I really wanted to get into the lab for a hands on approach," said Wilson, who has surely made a difference in the field of science and technology.
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