Despite the challenges of growing up in the early days of the civil rights movement, when opportunities for African-Americans were limited at best, one of the world’s most prolific scientists beat the odds.
In 1957, the world watched as the Russian satellite Sputnik rocketed into the ether, kicking off the space race and launching countless dreams as a generation of children imagined futures as inventors and explorers, engineers and astronauts.
One of them was Shirley Ann Jackson, an 11-year-old from Washington, D.C., who would go on to become the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), head the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), serve as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and win a National Medal of Science.
Yet, the woman Time magazine later called “the ultimate role model in science” almost wasn’t a success story. Her trajectory was nearly thwarted because of the color of her skin.
“Dr. Jackson is an incredible inspiration,” said Rosalind (Roz) Hudnell, the exec who launched Intel’s $300 million Diversity in Technology initiative last year.
“Her achievements in both the academic world and in theoretical physics have literally shaped the way we communicate as a world,” she continued. “Dr. Jackson’s accomplishments demonstrate the power of human potential unleashed through diversity.”
During Jackson’s early years, schools across the country were still segregated and the quality of education in those schools was not equal.
At Jackson’s swearing-in ceremony for the NRC position in 1995, Al Gore looked back into the past and put it like this:
“There’s a wonderful school a few blocks away, but Shirley isn’t allowed to walk through the doors,” he said. “And even at the high school level in Washington, the schools lack the small classes and modern labs that a budding scientist needs … to become ‘Shirley the Great,’” the moniker Jackson had claimed as a young, hopeful child.
But unlike others before her, thanks to the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision on Brown versus Board of Education that mandated the integration of schools, Jackson got the opportunity to follow her dreams.
The path wasn’t always easy.
“The biggest challenges were after I left Washington,” she said.
When she set off for college, she hoped to find a bond with other women (there were 45 in her class), but – as she told Science magazine – they wouldn’t sit with her at meals, nor did they want her in their study groups.
As one of only two African-American women in her freshman class of 900 at MIT in 1964, Jackson was often lonely.
“I had to work alone,” Jackson said. “I went through a down period, but at some level you have to decide you will persist in what you’re doing and that you won’t let people beat you down.”
It was this attitude and determination that enabled Jackson to finish her undergraduate degree and keep working.
She completed her Ph.D. in elementary particle theory in 1973, becoming the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT and second woman in the U.S. to earn a doctorate in physics.
She went on to conduct work in theoretical physics at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Illinois, then the European Center for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, where she got used to being one of the only minorities at meetings.
“If you give a physics paper, it better be good,” she once said, recognizing that – as the only black woman in the room – she stood out. “Because people will remember.”
In addition to her work in theoretical physics, Jackson spent 15 years with Bell Laboratories where her experiments in physics led to numerous advances in telecommunications, including the portable fax, the touch-tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Jackson to serve as Chairman of the NRC, where she had authority over all aspects of the national nuclear industry outside of the military. She formed the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA), which examines issues and provides assistance to other nations on matters of nuclear safety.
“Scientific discovery and technological innovation is fundamental to global security,” Jackson said, after being appointed to Barack Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board in 2014. “I have long believed that those in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields have a special obligation to bring our knowledge and perspectives into the public policy arena to help better inform decision-making.”
Inspiring the Next Generation
From her early days at MIT and throughout her career, Jackson enjoyed teaching others, repeatedly returning to the world of academia.
She assumed a professorship at Rutgers from 1991 to 1995, and then, in 1999, became the first female and first African-American president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recently ranked 39th of national universities by U.S. News &World Report.
Her goal: to increase the number of students – particularly, women and minorities – pursuing STEM careers and to instill a passion for scientific research and discovery.
“The students we educate today are the ones who will drive the innovations of tomorrow,” Jackson said while promoting The Science Coalition’s Science 2034 initiative. She said those students will thrive if they get support for research and education in STEM-related fields.
Jackson, the Hall of Famer
Jackson’s many accolades include her induction into the Women in Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame in 2000 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998. She’s also ranked as one of the 50 Greatest Living Geniuses by The Best Schools.
This year, Jackson was honored with one of the nation’s most prestigious prizes, the National Medal of Science, presented by President Obama.
“Over the years, Dr. Jackson has revolutionized the way science informs public policy,” said Obama. “From rethinking safety at our nuclear plants to training a new generation of scientists and engineers that looks more like the diverse and inclusive America she loves.”
Intel’s Hudnell, who has crossed paths with Jackson through the years, said it is incredibly important to share stories like Jackson’s with today’s youth.
“A lack of diversity in engineering and computer science will drive a lack of new ideas, new products and new services to meet the demands of the new world,” she said, adding that Jackson’s story shows what is possible, even in the face of incredible challenges.