Leader in Buildings Research Receives Prestigious Black Engineer of the Year STEM Award

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Roderick Jackson Follows His Passion for Science, Students, and Social Justice

At the age of 3, Roderick Jackson, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL’s) laboratory program manager for buildings research, landed his first job. He was tasked with picking up straight nails as a member of the framing crew for his father’s construction business. As glamorous as that sounded, with time, he was entrusted to learn every aspect of the business firsthand.

Leveraging a Family Legacy

Jackson’s father, Louis Jackson, was one of 16 children, and all 11 brothers built houses. He spent every summer and holiday break working with his father, who instilled him with a strong work ethic and high standards. It is easy to see why these roots in Canton, Mississippi, led to a career surrounded by buildings.

“Construction and buildings were always a part of my family history,” Jackson said. “Everyone knew my last name was synonymous with building houses.”

Yet, his mom helped strengthen his sense of purpose in science. Gwen Jackson grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1966, she was in the crowd waiting to listen to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who was in Canton to support the March Against Fear. It was during this event that Mississippi State police officers released tear gas on the gathering in Canton. In retelling the story to Jackson, his mom still remembers how her eyes stung from the tear gas.

“She taught me that I am somebody, and I am here to help others get to this point,” Jackson said. “She had particular influence on my perspective of social justice, so that’s why I bring that lens to my work in buildings, science, and engineering. We can address climate change and also ensure we’re not increasing social energy injustices.”

Mentoring GEMs & Jewels

Shortly after moving to Colorado, Jackson looked at opportunities to mentor future leaders and scientists. After all, mentors were instrumental to his success, both academically and professionally.

Being “super-passionate” about the national FIRST Robotics Competition when he became involved in 2002 led to Jackson mentoring inner-city kids in Mississippi — and then in Atlanta, Georgia. “It really makes an impact,” he said. “I’ve seen kids go on to become engineers and doctors.”

Prior to the pandemic, Jackson helped coach a high school robotics team from High Tech Early College in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood. “When I got to Denver, I wanted to do something to contribute to the community,” Jackson said.

Throughout his career, he has also mentored many students who are part of the Graduate Education for Minority Students (GEM) Fellowship program. As a GEM Fellow himself, Jackson knows firsthand the impact of the program’s mission “to enhance the value of the nation’s human capital by increasing the participation of underrepresented groups (African Americans, American Indians, and Hispanic Americans) at the master’s and doctoral levels in engineering and science.”

Jackson is a proud GEM alum and received the National GEM Consortium Alumni of the Year Award in 2016.

“Upon meeting Roderick, you quickly get a sense of how strongly rooted he is in building science,” said NREL Laboratory Director Martin Keller. “His impact goes far beyond the laboratory. Roderick has spent countless hours mentoring and nurturing future researchers, as well as early-career building scientists. I have met many of them, from high schoolers on the robotics team to GEM Fellows at NREL.”

Success in Science

The long days spent on the construction site helped Jackson realize that he would take a related but different path in life. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate in mechanical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. Through key mentors throughout his education, he soon learned about the network of national laboratories.

Jackson spent eight years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, honing his approach to innovation and his perspective on impactful research. He was on the forefront of connected communities research, leading an effort that established Alabama Power’s Smart Neighborhood. Working with Southern Company and the Department of Energy (DOE), it was the first project in the southeastern United States to connect high-performance homes with a community microgrid, deploying a transactive microgrid approach.

While at Oak Ridge, Jackson was also the technical lead for the Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy (AMIE) demonstration project. AMIE brought together experts from multiple research teams across the laboratory, 20 partners from industry, and DOE scientists to design, develop, and demonstrate a 3D-printed house that shares power wirelessly with a 3D-printed electric vehicle. With his leadership, the first-of-its-kind research was completed in a mere nine months.

After the completion of AMIE, Jackson was recognized as an Innovator of the Year at the Young, Gifted & Empowered Awards for his groundbreaking work in building-energy-efficiency innovation.

In 2017, Jackson became NREL’s laboratory program manager for buildings research. He sets the strategic agenda for NREL’s buildings portfolio, while working closely with senior laboratory management. The portfolio includes all research, development, and market implementation activities, which aim to improve the energy efficiency of building materials and practices.

In 2021, he was spotlighted on a national platform during a congressional hearing on Building Technologies Research for a Sustainable Future. His testimony gave the Subcommittee on Energy more insight into the impact of buildings research and solutions that could help the United States move toward a more equitable energy future.

“Although I was initially a mentor for Roderick, he has taught me a great deal, not only about building science and impactful research, but also about solutions for a just energy transition,” said Johney Green, NREL associate laboratory director for Mechanical and Thermal Engineering Sciences. “We are very fortunate to have such a champion for making this world better for all.”

Black Engineer of the Year

After more than a decade of leading innovative building research and mentoring dozens of young scientists, Jackson is being honored with a Black Engineer of the Year Award (BEYA) at the 36th annual BEYA STEM Conference, Feb. 17–19, 2022, in Washington, D.C. He is receiving a Professional Achievement in Government Award and is the first BEYA recipient from NREL.

The Professional Achievement Award is given to a mid-career professional who has made significant discoveries and important advances in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and is acknowledged as a leader of large STEM initiatives. The Black Engineer of the Year Awards in STEM recognize leaders who are developing innovation. The BEYA STEM Conference’s awards provide leading employers with the opportunity to share the achievements of minorities in STEM. This year’s nominees were voted on by the BEYA Selection Committee members from hundreds of eligible entries.

“While my passion for science, engineering, and energy led me to pursue a bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, the legacy established by my dad and his 10 brothers was never far from my heart,” Jackson said. “Throughout my 12-year career at DOE national laboratories, I have been able to marry my love for energy innovation with my family’s legacy.”

Learn more about NREL Buildings research.

Article courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory. By Linh Truong 

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