Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is a superwoman of science.
The first African-American woman to earn a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she’s also the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological research university in the United States. Born to Beatrice and George Jackson on August 5, 1946, in Washington, D.C., Jackson’s drive for success as a child came from her parents who encouraged and valued education. She would attend an accelerated program in math as well as science at Roosevelt High School and graduated the valedictorian of her class in 1964.
Upon her arrival at MIT in the fall of 1964 as part of a small collective of Black students studying theoretical physics, Jackson described her time at the university as “pretty isolating” in a conversation with Technology Review in 2017.
Four years later, she earned her bachelor’s of science in 1968 and four years after, she finished her doctorate work under the tutelage of Dr. James Young. Specializing in elementary particle theory, Jackson officially became Dr. Shirley Jackson, the first to earn a doctorate degree from the prestigious university. In total, she’s the second African-American in the history of the United States to earn a doctorate in physics.
“It’s nearly impossible to understand the full sweep of Shirley’s career, from academia to government to business,” Sylvester Gates, who considered Jackson to be his mentor at MIT said. “She has been extraordinarily successful in all of those realms. She also has a magnificent ability to understand organizations and how to be effective within them … She has always been the cool head in the group.”
Jackson held several positions throughout the 1970s after earning her Ph.D. She worked as a research associate at Fermilab in Illinois, traveled abroad as a visiting scientist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland and later joined the theoretical-physics research department at Bell Labs. Her trajectory continued upward in the ‘80s as she shifted towards public policy. She advised then New Jersey Governor Tom Kean on how the state should invest in science and technology at its research universities and later taught theoretical physics at Rutgers University beginning in 1991.
Then, in 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Jackson the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). She developed and implemented regulations for assessing risk at the country’s nuclear power plants, using sophisticated computer modelings to make judgments about the likelihood of various problems. In theory, if a power plant operator wanted to make physical changes to the plant, regulators could use those computer modelings to accurately predict the risks of those changes.
After her stint as chair of the NRC concluded, Jackson became the 18th president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1999. She became the first woman and African-American in the position, where she remains today, working to develop a world-class university.
“I understood universities from the point of view of oversight and from the point of view of the faculty, in terms of how to organize research,” she said.
The achievements didn’t stop with her appointment as Rensselear. She was the first African-American woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering as well as the first woman to serve as president of the National Society of Black Physicists. In addition to her doctorate degree from MIT, Jackson has been awarded over 50 honorary doctoral degrees.
In 2009, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. She led a study on advanced manufacturing in the United States and was also involved with issues of national and global security, cybersecurity, and digital technology. In 2016, Obama awarded her the National Medal of Science for her work in condensed matter and particle physics, public policy achievements, and being an inspiration to the next generation of STEM professionals.
“It’s important to serve,” Jackson said of those appointments.“It does take a lot of time. But I don’t play golf. And I have the ability to learn fast.”
In a world of firsts, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is easy to miss. But, she is a remarkable woman, still the same.