“Treasure your curiosity and nurture your imagination. Have confidence in yourself. Do not let others put limits on you. Dare to imagine the unimaginable.”- Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson has spent her life breaking down racial and gender barriers in both the academic world and throughout her career. While some of her barrier-breaking abilities stem from her natural intelligence, a major reason she continues to be a vital figure for civil rights and equity movements today is because of her determination and strong will to do what is right, even if it is difficult.
Dr. Jackson has always shown remarkable academic excellence throughout her life. In 1964, she graduated from her public high school as valedictorian and accepted her place as one of only twenty-two African American students admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Even though Shirley was brilliant, she still faced discrimination during her time at MIT. Her fellow classmates would not allow her to join study groups and she was often mistaken as a low-wage worker while on campus. Shirley had to face racism, sexism, and classism during her years at MIT.
Persevering through systematic and individualistic discriminatory actions, Shirley received her Bachelor’s Degree in Physics. She continued her education at MIT to inspire more people of color and women to attend MIT and achieve their academic goals. In 1973, she earned her Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics, becoming the first African American Woman to receive a Ph.D. from MIT in any field.
Afterward, Dr. Jackson kept breaking barriers during her career. She furthered the theoretical physics field by studying multiple focus areas including condensed matter physics, electronic and optical properties of two-dimensional systems, and polaronic aspects of electrons in two-dimensional spaces. She studied these areas in laboratories across the United States and with the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland.
Not only did Dr. Jackson aid in the furthering of theoretical physics, but she also participated in many important councils and boards for the United States. She started as a member of the US Department of Energy task force in 1994 but quickly rose to higher positions. In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Jackson to serve as Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, becoming the first African American and the first woman to hold the position. She continued to help the US government through multiple positions including serving on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, being the chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and serving as the appointed Co-Chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
While Dr. Jackson was participating as a major contributor to these boards and councils, she was also making Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute into a world-class technological research university. As President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Jackson created The Rensselaer Plan which was to increase the budget for research expenditures. Since then, Dr. Jackson has adapted the plan to continue with the growth of the institute. Her progress and success are shown by the amazing research that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has published in the past twenty years as well as the drastic increase of applicants applying to the institute.
While her scientific discoveries, national service, and institutional work are important, Dr. Jackson’s most vital mission is to increase the number of minorities in the science fields. She pursues her mission by acting as a mentor to many underrepresented students in the science fields, in addition to offering encouragement and resources to people of color and women.
To learn more about Dr. Jackson, check out Strong Force: The Story of Physicist Shirley Ann Jackson by Diane O’Connell or read the article “The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson” by Amanda Schaffer.
Chandler, D L. “Little Known Black History Fact: Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson.” Black American Web,blackamericaweb.com/2014/11/05/little-known-black-history-fact-dr-shirley-ann-jackson/#:~:text=Shirley A.,the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Jackson, Shirley. “Shirley Jackson, Ph.D., Biography.” Rensselaer, president.rpi.edu/president-biography.
Schaffer, Amanda. “The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson.” MIT Technology Review, 19 Dec. 2017, www.technologyreview.com/2017/12/19/146775/the-remarkable-career-of-shirley-ann-jackson/.