Straight Out of Science Fiction

Deborah Jackson

Deborah Jackson (pictured left) first became interested in science in junior high school after reading about telepaths and spaceships in the sci-fi novel Star Rangers by Andre Norton. "I became enamored with the idea of writing science fiction. I wanted to get into science because I thought you couldn't really write science fiction unless you knew some," she recalls. "Along the line, it turned out I'm really not a good writer, but I actually liked doing physics."

Now a senior member of the Quantum Computing Technologies Group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, Jackson helps invent devices that seem right out of science fiction. She assembles sensors keen enough to detect a single photon of light. The sensitivity of these sensors will provide computer networks with a system so secure that any attempts to eavesdrop will interrupt the flow of data and alert guards to spies (see box).

"For me, what's fascinating about science is being at the cutting edge and not quite knowing the answer," says Jackson. "It's about the challenge of the mystery."

Beating Hackers with Light

Jackson heads a new quantum cryptography lab at JPL, where her research group is developing single photon detectors that are sensitive enough to detect light some 10 billion times dimmer than a 100-watt bulb. Conventional methods of relaying secret messages depend on randomly generated large numbers, or keys, and these encrypted messages can only be opened using the key. Single-photon sources allow secret keys to be sent with absolute security, as the laws of quantum mechanics say it is impossible to observe a photon without altering it. This means any attempt to hack into single photon signals can be detected by the sender and intended recipient.

Jackson was born in Topeka, Kansas, to a military family who could trace their history to a great-grandfather who served as a Confederate cook in the Civil War. When Jackson entered MIT as an undergraduate in 1969, she was the first in her family to enter science. It was hard, she says, not having a science legacy like many of her classmates, but as a military brat who changed environments every few years, she learned how to adapt quickly to new situations.

Looking back at her days as a physics major, Jackson remembers the rich environment of role models MIT had at the time. "Margaret McVicar in the materials science department was an inspiration. When things got hard, she was a woman I could really, really look up to," she says. "Shirley Jackson, the first black chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was a graduate student at the time, and Jim Young was a black faculty member when there weren't many. They were all really good role models."

After graduating from MIT in 1974, Jackson was accepted at Stanford, Cornell, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, but went to Stanford because it had the most supportive environment. "It was a magical time during which Stanford graduated the largest number of black Ph.D. physicists in the country," she said, citing the American Institute of Physics statistics. She entered the field of optics because she felt it was one of the few areas of physics that allowed her enter either academia or industry.

Working As a Professional Physicist

After receiving her doctorate, Jackson did postdoctorate work at IBM and worked at Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu, California. In 1988, Jackson left physics to recover from injuries sustained in a car accident. Her recovery took 13 years. "My doctor told me I had to walk away from physics because the commute and lab work were aggravating the injury," she recalls. But Jackson had dedicated her life to the discipline, and walking away tested her soul. So she had to learn how to conserve energy, and started doing yoga. The yoga helped her deal with pain and injury and had some other positive effects. "It was a time of spiritual growth for me," she says, "that I had never allowed to develop before because I was a scientist . . . I think I matured in many, many ways."

During her recovery, Jackson worked as a senior member of the technical staff at the RAND Corporation, a physically less stressful job. As she felt able to travel regularly, she returned to technical pursuits at JPL and took part in a variety of projects. In one project, she helped the Mars Global Surveyor and the Cassini mission to Saturn have successful interplanetary voyages by delivering extraordinarily accurate clocks based on vibrating crystals. These ultra-stable oscillators set a constant beat so that spacecraft can synchronize their communication frequencies with Earth.

If successful, Jackson's current mission of developing a more secure method of transferring information using a single photon would revolutionize information technology. Although the experiments are slow and tedious now, she has the comfort of knowing that if they are successful, the results of their work will be critical to everyone.

Advice for Students

Although today's students may think having a similar career is impossible, Jackson says that those with the desire to follow in her footstep can do so by keeping a few things in mind. Because Jackson wanted to become a writer early on, she spent time becoming better at it, which has helped her with her career. Regardless of your vocation, good writing and communication skills are important.

Jackson took advantage of summers jobs -- at Argonne National Laboratory, Bell Labs, and as a tutor for MIT's Interphase program for undergraduates -- and recommends that students try different kinds of science jobs to get an idea of what to do later on.

Finally, Jackson notes that science is not an individual endeavor as is often portrayed. "Even Newton said he stood on the shoulders of giants. Science is a group journey, and everybody can bring something of value to the table. If you don't believe you can contribute, of course you won't. But if you love what you're doing, you'll be a wild success, because you won't have to plan every detail from one moment to the next."

Charles Choi is a freelance writer and may be reached at

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