In Memoriam:
Dr. Janis H. Jackson, 1953-2003

Janis H. Jackson, M.D., a talented scientist who worked at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) for over 16 years and a gifted mentor for a generation of young students, died last Saturday, March 22, 2003 from complications related to pulmonary fibrosis at a local hospital. She was 49.

Trained originally as a clinician and later as a laboratory scientist, Jackson was both of these and more. In his eulogy delivered at her service, TSRI Professor Charles Cochrane, a close friend, collaborator, and colleague, described Jackson as a thoughtful and caring scientific investigator, who had determined shortly after completing medical school that she could have a greater impact on human health by applying her efforts to research rather than to the bedside practice of medicine.

Cochrane recalled that Jackson approached her research with rare vigor and insight from the moment she arrived to long after she had established her own laboratory at TSRI.

"One of my joys was taking my research problems to her office to pass them before her scrutiny," he said. "And every time, new light was shed upon complex difficulties by Jan, who drew from a seemingly limitless background of information."

At TSRI, Jackson worked towards understanding pulmonary inflammatory disease and the development of cancer. When she first arrived at TSRI in July 1985, she began, with Cochrane, by exploring the mechanisms of oxidative damage to lung tissue during inflammation, which is an important component of pulmonary disease.

Her earliest findings were that oxidants generated in the inflammatory process combined with transition metals in the vicinity of nuclear DNA caused damage to the DNA. She found that all four DNA bases were hydroxylated. Repair of this injury led to the loss of cellular energy and death of the cells, a mechanism that has subsequently been found to be of great significance in lung disease. But of equal importance, she found that the oxidant-damaged DNA would undergo mutations, and the mutated DNA could lead to malignant transformations.

These findings led Jackson into the realm of the biochemistry of carcinogenesis, one that fascinated her and to which she applied herself through her remaining years at TSRI.

"Jan was constantly reporting fascinating developments in her research," says Richard Ulevitch, who was chair of her department throughout many of these years. "I always looked forward to hearing the presentations she gave."

Jackson was a prodigious collaborator, working extensively with other scientists at TSRI, neighboring institutions like the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), The Salk Institute, and the Burnham Institute, and other universities.

Equally great were her contributions in education and community service. Through her work with the TSRI volunteer group ScrippsAssists, for instance, she coordinated many Saturday trips to St. Vincent de Paul Village, where she and other TSRI volunteers helped serve meals to its homeless residents. Directly and indirectly, she played a major role in the lives of many young minds, personally mentoring dozens of junior high and high school students and serving on the boards of related organizations.

She was wholeheartedly committed to increasing the number of African Americans interested in pursuing careers in science and medicine, and she was a vital supporter of TSRI's education outreach initiative. From the program's inception in 1989 to the summer of 2000, Jackson mentored dozens of high school students and several undergraduates through internships in her laboratory, offering them intensive, hands-on research experiences. Most of these young people were from ethnic groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences, and all of them went on to universities, many with full scholarships. Several of her former student interns are now successful physicians and scientists.

Levy Lewis, who recently received his B.S. degree from the University of California, Davis and who is working at the Bodega Marine Lab, was a Mount Miguel High School student who interned in Jackson's lab in the summer of 1997. "Working with Dr. Jackson was extremely challenging," Lewis reported at the end of that summer. "Not only did she want me to know how to do our experiments, but also why we did them. She handed me an experiment that was worthy of post-docs in our lab. It was a demanding, yet enjoyable experience."

Jackson also mentored students under the auspices of the Elementary Institute of Science (EIS), a San Diego non-profit founded in 1964 with the aim of providing science enrichment for children underrepresented in the sciences. She started out mentoring several high school students through the internship program, and later served on several committees for the organization, including vice president of their board of directors and head of a critical fundraising effort.

"Jan was very much committed to getting good, solid science education for all students in San Diego, regardless of which community they came from," says Doris Anderson, the executive director of EIS.

As vice president of the EIS board, Jackson took a leadership role in the capital campaign for a new science and technology learning center. Her efforts will bear fruit next month when EIS moves into its new 15,000 square foot facility at 608 51st Street in San Diego, where nine laboratories will provide kids the opportunity to study chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, computers, engineering, and photography in a creative environment.

She also advocated for San Diego high school students through the local chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). She served as moderator for the organization's science bowl and judge and mentor for its annual science fair, a friendly competition where local high school students present individual research projects. In 1999, the organization awarded her its Community Service Award.

Says local NOBCChE Chapter President Ron Lewis, "As much as Jan was doing, she always found time to come out and help us."

Frank Chisari, another TSRI colleague, remembers Jackson's work serving as a member of the scientific advisory committee for the General Clinical Research Center (GCRC), which Chisari directs. She would evaluate the scientific merits of protocols submitted by Scripps investigators to the GCRC and would advise the GCRC on policy questions.

She brought to every discussion, Chisari remembers, both a balanced perspective and invaluable insight that were wrought from her broad experiences that took her from the heart of the inner city to the top of the ivory tower.

"I will miss [her contributions] very much," he says. "And I will miss her very much."

Born on December 6, 1953 in Kansas City, Kansas, to Dr. Verna Worthy Jackson and the late Dr. John Henry Jackson, Janis Jackson received her formal education in the Denver Public School System. After graduating from East High School, she attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island with a major in Biology and Chemistry. She continued her studies at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where she received her M.D. degree.

She subsequently completed a one-year internship at the University of California, Los Angeles, a two-year internal medicine residency at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and a three-year pulmonary fellowship at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Upon completion of her fellowship and her board certification in pulmonary medicine, she relocated to La Jolla, California to accept a position at TSRI.

A service for Jackson was held on Tuesday, March 25, 2003 at the Bethel AME Church in San Diego. She will be buried by her family in Denver, Colorado.

Jackson is survived by her mother, two sisters, and a host of other relatives and friends. The family has established the Dr. Janis H. Jackson Endowed Memorial Fund. Donations should be made to the Elementary Institute of Science, 588 Euclid Avenue, San Diego, CA, 92114 (619)263-2302.




Dr. Janis H. Jackson, 1953-2003.