Remembering Deja Jackson: A Renaissance Woman

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Deja’s friend, Maria Cecilia Missena, described her as a “modern-day renaissance woman.”

Faculty, staff, students, and alumni are mourning the loss of Dr. Deja Jackson, a former graduate student at the UFTI. Deja was larger than life, a woman full of formidable energy and big ideas. Smart, talented, and introspective. She had an explosive smile that would make you feel glad to be in her presence. Deja passed away on August 19, 2020 at the age of 27 in Beaufort Memorial Hospital. Her death was related to a medical call. Deja received her Ph.D. in Spring 2019 under the guidance of Dr. Siva Srinivasan. She worked on safety-related issues. Her dissertation was on “Multi-Level Exploratory Analysis of Motorcycle Safety”. While at the UFTI, she was the recipient of multiple awards and interned at the Federal Highway Administration. After graduation, she worked at WSP USA, served as adjunct professor at Cleveland State University and then moved back to her home where she had just started a position in May 2020 as Deputy Director of Traffic and Transportation Engineering at Beaufort County, South Carolina. Below is a collection of thoughts and memories from faculty, students and alumni and staff at UFTI.

“I was impressed by her passion to address transportation safety problems, something that I saw in her even on the first day I met her as a prospective Ph.D. student visiting UF,” said Dr. Siva Srinivasan, an Associate Professor in civil engineering at UF and Deja’s former doctoral adviser. “About a year after getting her doctorate, she was already well on her way to excelling in her professional career and to making real impact on society. We will all miss her personally and professionally. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends and I wish them all strength in navigating through this tough phase of life.”

“Deja was a great student and researcher, and a great contributor to the UFTI,” said Dr. Lily Elefteradou, Professor and Director of the UFTI. “She was a pleasure to have in our student group, very helpful, social, deeply engaged with her research, and a natural leader. She will be greatly missed.”

“Deja completed a minor in urban and regional planning,” said Dr. Ruth Steiner, a Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at UF. “She was always enthusiastic about involving planning students in the activities of WTS and other transportation-related activities.”

Deja with Shirin at one of the WTS International conferences.

“Sharing the same office made our job much easier to collaborate on WTS and Graduate Student Council student chapters,” said Dr. Shirin Noei, a Research Assistant Professor at Tennessee Technological University. “We used to spend hours talking about our plans and how we could engage more students in WTS activities. She preferred to work at nights, and I could only catch her when she was walking down the department’s corridor wearing UF’s basketball jersey. She was energetic, passionate, and strong. Deja believed that ‘Your life’s vision is shaped by your thoughts. Think carefully.’ Dreaming big and working hard made Deja an inspirational leader that will never be forgotten.”

“I first met Deja at a NSBE conference while I was still in undergrad, where we shared our experiences about attending Historically Black Colleges (HBSUs),” said Asean Davis who graduated in August 2020 with a master’s degree in the civil engineering/transportation program. “She later served as my mentor in the SURF program and was one of the first transportation Ph.D. students that I interacted with. Her exuberant spirit and tenacious mentality inspired all who crossed her path, and it is with a heavy heart that I now have to say, ‘Rest in Peace.’ Sending prayers and love to her family and loved ones.”

Aschkan (front right) with Deja and several students from the UFTI (starting at back left row: Stephen Spana, Fabio Sasahara, Pedro Maldonado, Gustavo de Andrade, Mahmoud Pourmehrab, Gaurav Sultania, Tyler Valila, and Ethan Stoop.

“Her office was across mine in our Ph.D. days at the University of Florida Transportation Institute,” said Dr. Aschkan Omidvar, a Data Scientist at Norfolk Southern Corporation. “She’d show up around 10:00 at night and work on her research until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. But many nights instead of working, we would talk long, long hours about everything in the world. She was 6 years younger, but she played a role as my mentor on how to live and work in the USA. So many conferences we presented our research together, so many scientific competitions we competed against, and so many great memories.”

I remember when Deja first visited UF,” said Dr. Miguel Lugo, a Transportation Engineer at RS&H. “From the first day, she was excited, she had an academic goal, and she was full of life. It was a brief encounter, as I graduated and passed the baton to a new generation that dreamed big, but she will be missed.”

Deja with members of the WTS Florida Gator Student Chapter is 2016 (Lauren Casasus, Maria Missena, and Ria Kontou)

“When I first met Deja, I immediately felt her vibrant personality and drive for success,” said Maria Cecilia Missena, a Roadway Designer at Scalar Consulting Group, Inc. “She was such a major proponent of the WTS UF Chapter when I was on the board, and I knew she would eventually lead that organization to an excellent standing. Every time I would reach out it was to congratulate her on another success be it a scholarship, her Ph.D., her business as an investor, anything and everything. Watching her succeed in anything she put her mind to, from transportation research all the way to football, she was always such an inspiration, a modern-day renaissance woman.”

“Deja positively impacted many students and professionals with her mentorship and friendliness, including me,” said Tyler Valila, a Transit/Roadway Engineer in Training (EIT) at HDR. “She helped make UFTI a welcoming environment for new students. Looking up to her remarkable career path, it was clear she was going to do great things for our profession. I will never forget enjoying our countless late-night conversations in Weil Hall about life and work. Deja was a great friend and professional. She will be missed.”

“Deja was bold, courageous, and often contributed in leadership roles,” said Dr. Pruthvi Manjunatha, the I-STREET Testbed Manager at UFTI. “A lot of communities will miss her, including ours, especially ours.”

Deja and Pedro during a WTS event in 2018.

“Two of the hardest things in life is to say hello for the first time and goodbye for the last,” said Dr. Pedro Adorno Maldonado, a Data Analyst and Business Proposal Writer at LAANSU, Inc. “Deja made the first ‘Hello’ seem so simple. When we first met, she was so kind to me. She made me feel comfortable and welcomed to UFTI. I always admired her charisma, determination, leadership, professionalism, and people skills that set her apart from everyone. Because she made our fist hello seem easy and natural, I want to make this goodbye moment great as well and say out loud, ‘Deja you are a memorable person, friend, daughter, and professional who showed the world that everything is possible if you fight for it. I know you are in a better place now and without any doubt, you left a legacy among those who meet you. My deepest condolences to your family, and I want to let them know they should be so proud of raising such an amazing star.’ Rest in peace Deja Jackson.”

Ines, Deja and Dr. Siva Srinivasan at a UFTI reception during TRB a couple years ago.

“As one of the WTS advisers, I worked closely with her,” said Ines Aviles-Spadoni, a Research Coordinator with the UFTI’s STRIDE Center. “She would engage in long conversations with me about her plans for the WTS Florida Gator student chapter when she served as president. She was always thinking ahead, had some really wonderful ideas.”

“I interacted with Deja often since my office is located in the lobby of the UFTI,” said Jennifer Gomez, who serves as the Administrative Assistant to Dr. Lily Elefteriadou. “She was very kind, generous, and always making sure to share food with me from the WTS meetings she held in the conference room. I know she had a big impact on many students and faculty, and she will be deeply missed.”

“My favorite photo of you shows your incredible personality and fun-loving spirit.” – Nancy McIlrath

“For those of you who knew Deja Jackson, I wanted you to know of her passing. I am both stunned and devastated…she was a kind and loyal friend to many and a true superstar in my book,” said Nancy McIlrath, who serves as the Graduate Academic Coordinator for the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment (ESSIE). “Deja M. Jackson, my young friend, you have been on my mind for the past two weeks, and I should have reached out to you. You certainly made a lasting impression on me and will live in my heart until my dying day. You exemplified the meaning of work hard, play hard and always with that brilliant smile on your face which I am certain brought you your success! My favorite photo of you shows your incredible personality and fun-loving spirit. You will be missed. I cannot fathom the pain that your family is experiencing right now. May your parents (and brother) find peace in knowing how much you were loved by others, how well they instilled the values that you exemplified in yourself and towards others and finally, how highly you regarded them for the individuals who they are, which was evidenced each and every time you spoke of them. To your young nieces, your Auntie loved you dearly!”

At Gustavo’s son’s 2nd birthday party at their old apartment, along with Deja, Gustavo (top left corner), his wife, Karla, Ria Kontou, Larry Dorrilus, Alessandro Aguiar, Gaurav Sultania, and Kiarash Fariborzi.

“We both joined the transportation Ph.D. program in 2015,” said Dr. Gustavo de Andrade. “We used to have long talks after every class; they were a very warm welcoming to the American culture. Very few people taught me so much in such little time. Deja was truly inspiring. Through her example and intelligence she changed some old points of view, and showed the value of diversity and the desire to change the world for the better.”

“I was surprised and saddened to hear this news in the recent UFTI bulletin,” said Les Brown, a Senior Managing Consultant/Transportation at ICF in Washington, D.C. “I have good memories of her as a classmate in Dr. Steiner’s transportation and land use course and recall her passion for motorcycle safety issues. RIP.”

“Wow, I can still remember our debate on light rail vs bus rapid transit during the Transportation Policy and Planning course,” said Jarell Smith, a Transportation Planner at VHB in Orlando, FL. “It was quite the thrill. Her love for transportation planning, engineering, and policy development was evident in her work.”

“What unexpected and unfortunate news,” said Lesly Antoine Jerome, a first-year doctoral student in the UF Department of Urban and Regional Planning. “When I think of Deja, I think of her fiery spirit and her excitement when talking about transportation-related topics. She was such a strong person. May the angels lead her into paradise.”