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Albert Jackson: Unlocking the Secrets of Engineering

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Albert S. Jackson, Ph.D., is an engineer and instructor with the University of California, Irvine, Extension, a college program designed to meet the needs of students and professionals through its continuing education curriculum. With more than 31 years of experience in a multitude of fields, including computer architecture, microprocessor/embedded systems applications, digital signal processing technology, and computer simulation, as well as 25 years of experience as an engineering professor, he is one of the most accomplished professionals in his field.

Jackson was born and raised in an environment typically not associated with producing world-class engineers: a farm in Kansas. His early life experiences drove him to develop an abiding interest in discovering how things worked and how to fix them when they were broken.

"The barnstormers in their biplanes who sometimes landed in a field nearby to give people rides fascinated me," he said.

Jackson's early ambition was to pursue aeronautics; unfortunately, the high school he attended offered neither physics nor algebra. Undeterred, he went to the principal of his school and asked that a small group of interested students be allowed to take a correspondence course in physics from the University of Nebraska. This was the beginning of his engineering career.

Because he fell ill while enlisted in the Navy during World War II, he was unable to attend radar training school. Instead, he poured his energy into a training manual which taught him the ins and outs of being a Motor Machinist Mate. The job of a Motor Machinist is essentially to operate, maintain, and repair the ship's engine and other vital machinery. After passing the test, he was assigned to a minesweeper as a Motor Machinist Third Class.

"My Navy experience convinced me that I needed a college education," he confessed.

Jackson was admitted to Caltech, where he received both a B.S. and an M.S. in electrical engineering. He said that his time at Caltech was slightly unnerving because "every student in my class had been a straight-A student in high school, and they were all very sharp. All of my professors were great, and the academic atmosphere was mind-blowing."

Since Caltech was not yet a coed institution, there was little socializing to be done on campus. Jackson busied himself with soccer and writing for the school newspaper. While working toward his master's, he also worked as a teaching assistant. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honor society, and Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honor society.

After completing his master's, Jackson went to Cornell University for his postgraduate study in control system theory, earning a Ph.D. For six years, he served as an instructor in control theory, logic design, and computer simulation before making the decision to work in the industry.

During his six years as a professor at Cornell, Jackson realized that he had developed an affinity for teaching, though his initial plan was to enter the profession in order to better understand the field of engineering. While at Cornell he gained significant experience, doing consulting work for the Naval Research Lab, GE, and Convair. He also spent two summers each with Bell Labs and the Naval Ordnance Test Station and was essential to the computer simulation of aircraft and missile design.

Jackson's first full-time engineering position was with TRW, where he conducted air traffic control research for the FAA. In the 1960s, he trained many NASA engineers in computer simulation technology and was responsible for a number of studies on spacecraft performance.

In 1965, Jackson came to the University of California, Irvine, where he was a part-time faculty member teaching control theory and computer simulation. The university later made the decision that part-time faculty could not teach undergraduates, compelling Jackson to move to the extension program where he continues to teach today.

Throughout his many years as a professor, Jackson has pursued a host of engineering opportunities, including starting three of his own companies, which he later sold. Additionally, he worked for Motorola's semiconductor group for 23 years, specializing in microprocessor design and applications. He also served on the engineering design committee, taught training courses, and participated in seminars for the public.

Among his more memorable career accomplishments Jackson counts the publishing of his book, Analog Computation (McGraw-Hill, 1960). Not surprisingly, Analog went on to become the standard university text on the subject for many years. He is also particularly proud of the extensive research he has conducted over the years, especially on the automation of terminal area air traffic control and spacecraft reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. Also notable are the time he has spent training NASA engineers and his design of the software for the Navy's USNS Wheeling, a range safety ship.

As an innovator of tremendous success, Jackson has also had a number of ideas which, unfortunately, did not come to fruition—among them a computerized device that would teach deaf children how to speak, which was blocked by a lack of federal funding.

"I have had many great learning experiences, often when faced with a problem that seemed impossible to solve," Jackson said. "Sometimes it would take days or weeks before the answers became clear to me. Technical problems were often easier to solve than those having to do with organizations and entrenched ideas of others. My research with air traffic control systems was a real education for me with the need to creatively work with people who are opposed to the application of technology to their area of expertise."

Jackson is also very involved in several professional and community organizations. He is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), where he was once a co-sponsor and also served as chairman of the IEEE Professional Group on Human Factors in Electronics and served on the IEEE Educational Activities Board. He has also worked as a paraprofessional counselor for eight years at what is now known as the Crystal Cathedral and has worked with the Seal Beach Redevelopment Agency for several years. He has served on the board of Irvine's Lakeshore Maintenance Association as well.

Q. What do you do for fun?
A. I enjoy photography, travel, skiing, and sailing.

Q. What CD is in your CD player right now?
A. Neil Diamond, Andrea Bocelli, and Josh Groban.

Q. What is the last magazine you read?
A. Time.

Q. What is your favorite TV show?
A. Monk, House, and The Closer.

Q. Who is your role model?
A. My father, Clem Savant, and many other teachers and researchers.

Given his long history of success in various engineering disciplines, Jackson has had a number of mentors, notably professors Walter Karplus of UCLA, George Bekey of USC, Allan Stubberud of UCI, and Clement Savant of CSULB (California State University, Long Beach).

"They all played key roles in my professional career by offering critiques of my work, advice, and encouragement," he said.

Jackson also cites Caltech professors Charles Wilts, Gilbert McCann, and Bob Sharp as having the greatest influence on him during his years at Caltech.

In order to bolster your chances for success as an engineer, Jackson said, "always keep an open and inquiring mind—never believe in the status quo or the opinion of others who say, 'It can't be done.' Find mentors that can help you stay on the right path. Work hard, be honest, and keep learning. Always remember that a technical solution is not enough—you need to work with people in order to fulfill their needs. Your quest is not done as long as you are here!"
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