Meet the IBEX Team: Willis Jenkins
WARNING: Do not try Willis Jenkins' childhood experiments at home.
As a pre-teen in Washington, D.C., Willis figured out how to power his bedroom with car batteries. Through trial and error, he discovered ways to run his lights, television and radio through battery power. "I had no books, no guidance, just the blessing of the Lord," Willis said, which meant that he had a few close calls, and ruined a pair of pants with battery acid!
Looking back with an electrical engineer's eye, Willis finds it "truly amazing that I didn't get burned or hurt" during this childhood tinkering. "If I had to do it over again, I would not do some of those experiments now," he said. "It was too dangerous."
It is not much of a surprise that a kid who created intercoms, system jammers, and even a mobile phone would end up working for NASA. "I used to look up in the sky and think, 'one day I'll walk on the Moon', and that was even before the Apollo landing," Willis said. On a fishing trip with his best friend, who later became his wife, Willis spotted NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. "I saw it, and I said, 'one day I'm going to work for those guys.'""
Today, Willis is a Program Executive (PE) for the Explorer's Program at NASA Headquarters. One of his tasks is managing the IBEX mission. "I'm responsible for the budget, project performance evaluation, schedule, and the management [of the IBEX mission]," he said. "I work with Mission Manager Greg Frazier, Program Scientist Eric Christian, Principal Investigator Dave McComas and other scientists to pull together as a team for a successful mission." He also serves as an advocate for the mission. During a typical day, Willis reviews projects and policies, meets with other team members, and determines strategies for making the mission run smoothly.
However, Willis did not always limit his studies to engineering. His childhood heroes included great inventors, like Dr. George Washington Carver, and pioneering doctors, like Dr. Charles Drew. His passions were evenly divided between "tinkering" and helping people through medicine. "My dream was to save lives and help people, but I also had an inventive side. [The famous inventors] that I looked at helped me to explore the creativeness that I had," Willis said.
His parents were key in encouraging Willis to continue learning and exploring. "They inspired me to do my best and be the best that I can be, and the great thing about my parents is that they believed in my abilities early in life. I would ask my dad to get me another car battery, and instead of saying, 'you don't need another car battery,' he would get me another one. My mom didn't yell at me when I spilled acid on my pants. Instead, she said, 'it's okay, now your nice pants are play pants."
Willis continued to dream about becoming an inventor or a doctor through his high school years. At age 15, Willis was accepted to a program called A Better Chance (ABC). The program placed talented inner city youth in schools with rigorous academic programs. "They would take the best kids in the inner city and put them in a different cultural environment for three years," Willis said.
He was placed in public high schools in North Andover, Massachusetts. "I lived in a house with ten other students in the program and we had a resident director. It was like being in college much earlier than most people go to college. Being in that environment at such a young age, I learned so much about living on your own, and I learned it much earlier than most of my counterparts," he said.
Because he lived away from home, Willis learned to take responsibility for his actions and solve his own problems earlier than most people, skills that he says he still uses. "I learned about dealing with challenges when I was in high school because I was away from home, and I learned about dealing with people with different ideas. I learned that issues come and go, and you should always stay positive in every situation. Sometimes you get in a disagreement with somebody and you have to walk away and say, 'okay, let's try again another time'," he said.
His parents' support helped him to survive away from home. "The hardest thing was for [my parents] to let me go [away to school] when I was 15, but they were only a phone call away, and they were always there, even in the tough times," Willis said. Their early lessons have stuck with him: "[My parents] always taught me to treat people like you wanted to be treated - with dignity and respect. They also instilled in their children to be ethical, truthful, and to have integrity," he said.
In his second year of college at Northeastern University in Boston, Willis finally decided to study engineering over medicine. "I liked the fact that I could design things and have that ingenuity. And ever since then, that's what I've been doing," Willis said. As a student he did a full-time internship, called a co-op, at a military firm called E-Systems. Working for E-Systems put Willis "on the road to management." Later, he worked for companies like GE and McDonnell Douglas before taking a position with NASA eleven years ago.
"I always wanted to put on that Apollo headset," Willis said, referring to the communications equipment NASA staff wore during the Apollo launches. "We had a launch last week, and I still get goosepimples whenever I participate in a successful launch. I get to relive what I saw on TV."
Willis is still committed to making the world a better place, although he works through science education rather than medicine. Willis often speaks at schools, and teaches the first- and second-grades at his church. His church lessons include science: last weekend, he taught the children about airplanes and took them to flight school. "I want to spark [kids'] interest, because you never know who will be the next engineer or scientist who will make the future of space exploration possible," he said.
He tells those future space explorers to "Never stop dreaming," to pursue co-ops or internships, and to "be willing to make some type of sacrifice to achieve what you want. Seek a mentor in your church or community for guidance and advice, and always, when you reach your goals, help someone else, because you didn't make it here totally on your own."
It is advice that Willis tries to follow in his own life. He said, "What I'm about is giving back to the community."