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Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson: A Lifelong Trailblazer and Scientific Leader

This profile on Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is the second post of a month-long series of profiles on Black STEM innovators in honor of Black History Month. Check back each weekday to read a new profile, the next of which focuses on Warren M. Washington, an Atmospheric Scientist in honor of National Weather Person's Day. 

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson has paved the way for scientists, women and women of color since she first decided to dedicate her life to STEM fields.

Dr. Jackson arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964 as one of the only African-American students. In addition to Dr. Jackson’s penchant for science, she also recognized and worked to thwart the social inequality she felt on campus by establishing MIT’s Black Student Union and increasing the number of African-America students enrolling at MIT from 2 to 57 in only one year1.

During an interview with Technology Review, Dr. Jackson reflected upon her undergraduate degree at MIT saying “it was pretty isolating.” Dr. Jackson also recounted stories of fellow students avoiding her, refusing her entry into study groups, and ostracizing her from social activities. In this same interview, Dr. Jackson stated that she realized the discrimination she endured did not change the fact that she still had work to do “So, she says, ‘I got myself together and finished the work.2’”

Dr. Jackson continued to ‘finish the work’ through her nine-year tenure at MIT where she completed a Bachelor’s of Science in Physics and a Ph.D. in Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics saying she stayed at MIT for two reasons: 1. A doctorate from the prestigious institution would benefit her future greatly; and 2. “because she “wasn’t going to give people the satisfaction of getting me to walk away. 2’”

Following the completion of her Ph.D., Dr. Jackson entered the workforce. Dr. Jackson worked as a postdoc for a national physics lab and a fellow at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, then at Bell Laboratories, an organization focused on researching Information Technology and Communications2.

While working at Bell Laboratories as a consultant in semiconductor theory, Dr. Jackson joined the faculty at Rutgers University and began serving as an advisor in the public sector to advocate funding for STEM initiatives.

Through the knowledge displayed in research and public policy, Dr. Jackson was offered to serve as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by then President Bill Clinton. As Chair of the NRC, Dr. Jackson focused on creating and enforcing regulation U.S. nuclear power plants by using new technology to accurately and quickly predict risks associated with such plants. Victor McCree, then a member of Dr. Jackson’s staff and currently the NRC’s Executive Director for Operations, “says the new approach was “probably the most significant philosophical and practical change in the history of the NRC.2”

Since 1999, Dr. Jackson serves as the 18th President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological university in the United States where she “has led an extraordinary transformation of the school since her arrival through an ambitious strategic initiative known as The Rensselaer Plan.3

Through the incredible scope of her work breaking barriers for minorities, conducting influential research, and advocating for STEM, Dr. Jackson has garnered 45 honorary doctoral degrees, many prestigious awards including the Vannevar Bush Award for a “lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy,” and was described in 2005 by Time Magazine as “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science.1

Dr. Jackson continued to be selected for national leadership roles by former President Barack Obama and remains an active leader in STEM.

References:

  1. National Women’s Hall of Fame. Shirley Ann Jackson. Retreived from https://www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/shirley-ann-jackson/.
  2. Technology Review. (2017, December 19). The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/609692/the-remarkable-career-of-shirley-ann-jackson/.
  3. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (2019). Office of the President Biography. Retrieved from https://president.rpi.edu/president-biography.