April 13, 2024
Florida Icon: Jacqueline Quinn

Photo: Norma Lopez Molina

"We absolutely can make things better and save this planet. We have the technology and capability," says Quinn. "There’s a balance we have to strive for and do it at a cadence where the economy can adjust. It’s just a matter of setting our minds to it."

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Florida Icon: Jacqueline Quinn

Environmental engineer at Kennedy Space Center who holds 12 U.S. patents, many involving soil contamination technology; inductee in the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Titusville; age 56

Kurt Loft | 3/8/2024

I was born in Athens, the town just outside of the University of Georgia, and my parents were graduate students there in science education. There was a national push back in the 1960s to try to get teachers into the science field, and both of my parents got fellowships to go back to school. That’s where they met.

They were both science teachers. My father got his doctorate in science education and my mom taught biology, human anatomy and chemistry at the high school level. So, I do have a different optic as to what a normal childhood is, compared to a childhood engaged in science.

My oldest daughter is an engineer and so is my husband. My younger daughter is the black sheep of the family because she went into genetics.

There’s some sort of genetics involved in choosing a field because I’ve always been a better scientist and mathematician than I ever was in English or history. Whenever I was in the lab I said, ‘this is where I belong.’

I’ve never observed myself as a nerd. I hung out with kids who were inquisitive and thought like I did, so I didn’t perceive myself that way at all. Education was an emphasis at the time, and people had an interest in learning new things, so I was extremely lucky.

I moved to Florida in 1989 after graduating from Georgia Tech and then got my master’s and doctorate from the University of Central Florida in Orlando. I started working for NASA as an environmental controls life support system engineer on the shuttle program — air revitalization, water and coolant systems. It was interesting because we only had one computer for our entire group, so we did a lot of handwritten stuff on paper.

My dad had a fond nickname for me — the ‘potty princess’ — because the astronaut toilet was part of the system I worked on.

I’m an avid scuba diver. I married my one-and-only dive buddy. We met at Georgia Tech in an extra-curricular scuba certification class 35 years ago. We even got our two daughters certified as soon as they were old enough, and any serious boyfriends had to get scuba certified in order to date our girls. We now take adult family dive trips, and my favorite dive locations are Bonaire, Little Cayman and the Big Island of Hawaii. I love the ocean view from below.

I’m lucky in having worked for NASA because they gave me a creative environment where I could ask questions and follow through by testing them.

Groundwater contamination is fairly new in the timeline of civil and environmental engineering. I was drawn to the lack of science that was needed to understand the impact of these nasty chemicals in the Earth’s subsurface. They break down very slowly, so they leave a footprint — a negative footprint.

I was very surprised to be inducted into the Florida and national halls of fame. When they first called me, I thought, ‘is this real?’ It’s very cool because I’ve had the honor of meeting some amazing inventors and contributors to society.

My daughters ask me how I come up with these ideas for inventions. But it’s not like I live in a bubble; I’ve been successful because I engage with incredible teams. We feed off each other’s energy and perspective.

Sure, my kids think of me as their role model, because they always say ‘Mom, I want to do that!’

Creativity allows you to think out of the box, to apply different ideas from different viewpoints to solve a problem. If we look at a problem from all different directions, we have multiple ideas about how to solve it.

Science is at the forefront of our technological advancement. If we don’t invest in science education and encourage the next generation to go into science, then we limit our growth.

We absolutely can make things better and save this planet. We have the technology and capability. There’s a balance we have to strive for and do it at a cadence where the economy can adjust. It’s just a matter of setting our minds to it.

Tags: Florida Icon, Feature

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