TROY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson says she never imagined herself as a role model. She is the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an accomplished theoretical physicist. She’s also the first African-American woman to ever receive a doctorate from MIT, to be chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the only woman and African-American to be RPI president, among many other glass ceiling-shattering achievements.
“I think when one ends up in a position like that, then one is both the recipient of doors that have opened along the way, and one is then opening doors that one hopes and intends to keep open for others to follow,” Jackson says in a Zoom interview with NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.
“For a long time I didn’t necessarily think of myself as a role model, but then I came around on that and decided that if what I had accomplished could be motivational and encouraging to other young African-American women, young women and to other African-Americans and minorities broadly, then that would be a good thing,” she goes on to say.
But Jackson’s dream of a life devoted to math and sciences and her path to success were not without roadblocks.
“There were certainly those who were not ready to see a woman of color be successful, but I was always raised on a principle of achieving personal excellence and also if one has the health and ability to help others, then one should,” Dr. Jackson says.
Shirley Ann Jackson was born to Beatrice and George Jackson on August 5, 1946 in Washington, D.C. She says says from the start, her parents always pressed the importance of education.
“My mother had us all reading before we were in kindergarten, and my father was mechanically minded and he nurtured my specific interests in math and science,” she explains.
She says her father George was a huge inspiration as a recipient of a bronze star for his contributions during World War II.
“There were these amphibious landing vehicles, and they kept losing their rudders and they would break off. My father figured out a special mechanical splice to re-create a steering mechanism for those boats and through that, they were really able to get the supplies and troops they needed to shore during Normandy,” she explains.
Jackson says she loved helping her dad develop photos they took, building things, and learning how the world works.
“I’d say we had a good childhood. My father helped us, my sisters and I, to build go-carts and one had to think about the effects of gravity and friction and so forth,” she says.
Yet Jackson’s pursuit of education in 1950’s Washington, D.C. was not without its hardships.
“My sisters and I would have to take a public bus to go miles to the school that we were assigned to. There was a school within walking distance, but we couldn’t attend because it was segregated,” she says.
She says she remembers being forced into the fringes of society for the color of her skin.
“I remember going from Washington, D.C. to visit relatives in Virginia when I was growing up, and we would always have to pack sandwiches or food my mother prepared, big jugs of Kool-Aid, and put them in a cooler in the car. We also had to take toilet paper and soap and jugs of water. Why would we do that? Because we knew we couldn’t stop on the way and there would be no place for us,” she says sadly.
The Civil Rights Movement and challenges of the age presented new opportunities for Shirley Ann Jackson. She says the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and Russia’s Sputnik launch were her game changers.
“The intense interest in science and math and strengthening the curriculum in those areas in the public schools played to my benefit,” she says.
Race took at least a bit of a backseat as America focused on its race to get a foothold in space. Jackson shot to the top of her class and later declined a guaranteed spot at George Washington University through an accelerated English program. She says she couldn’t ignore the pull sciences held over her interest.
“The idea of going to MIT actually came from my father, he mentioned it to me,” she says. “MIT of course had an enormous reputation, and I thought how wonderful it would be to be around like minded students.”
So as valedictorian of her high school class, she was accepted to MIT — one of only two Black female freshmen. She says she was often shunned by her white classmates, but worked hard to get her bachelor’s in physics while her father worked two jobs to support her. She and her fellow freshman became the only two Black women ever to graduate from the prestigious school at that time.
Just as she was deciding where to go to graduate school, tragedy struck with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I had been a good student, a really good one, but I had been quiet. And I felt that, you know, I needed to do something,” she says. “I went to MIT with stars in my eyes thinking about being at a science and math centered institution, but I stayed to make a difference.”
So she decided to stay at MIT to form the Black Student Union and push for better inclusion and diversity on campus. Through that decision, Shirley Ann Jackson became Doctor Shirley Ann Jackson — the first Black woman to get an MIT doctorate and the second African American in the nation to get one in physics.
“I didn’t know and realize the historical significance of it until essentially, I had already done it,” she laughs.
Pioneering Research and Public Service
Although Shirley Ann Jackson never set out to be a pioneer and a role model in the growing world of STEM, that’s exactly what she became. From MIT, she went on to research at labs around the world for 15 years, her longest period at AT&T’s Bell Labs in New Jersey. She’s perhaps best known for her work on polaronic aspects of electrons in two-dimensional systems.
It was there she caught the attention of New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean who appointed Jackson to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology in 1989.
“I was never one for engaging myself in politics, but I got interested in that role science and technology could play in strengthening economies and uplifting societies,” she explains.
Dr. Jackson managed an impressive amount of multitasking throughout this phase in her career. She also accepted to teach a colloquium at Rutgers University from 1991 to 1995. She says her love of teaching meshed well with her research, since she was already well used to standing in front of others, a piece of chalk in hand.
“Because I did theoretical physics, you will always see some blackboard where I’m writing something down, well now the boards are a little different,” she laughs while perusing old photos.
Her work caught the White House eye, and in 1994, President Bill Clinton made Dr. Jackson chair of the National Regulatory Commission. Another glass ceiling shattered as she was the first African-American woman to hold the position.
“Regulators tend not to get that much credit for what doesn’t happen, but obviously there’s a lot of attention if something untoward happens. So yes of course, I’m proud that — at least on my watch — there was nothing untoward that happened. Especially given the experience of Three Mile Island before me and Chernobyl,” she says.
She spent the next few years touring nuclear power plants all over the globe, calculating predictions, and advising on safety precautions and likely scenarios to properly contain reactors. Through her work, she likely prevented potential catastrophes that could have taken thousands of lives. Dr. Jackson also helped found and served as chairperson for the International Nuclear Regulators Association in 1997, again trailblazing ahead for women and African-Americans.
However, as Dr. Jackson began to raise her family, she realized she wanted to keep opening opportunities for the next generation.
“We were getting to a point in raising our son, my husband and I, that I decided I wanted more structure and time,” she says.
A Love of Education Full Circle
Jackson was offered the seat as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and accepted in 1999. She says she immediately went in with a plan in mind.
“When I got to Rensselaer, the percentage of minorities and African Americans was not where we wanted it to be. We’ve nearly doubled that representation and we are still working to take it even further. We have a much more deliberate focus on diversity and inclusion,” she says.
She says she’s also made deliberate moves to increase the international student population.
“We are a technologically based institution, and ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere,” she explains. “We know we need to attract talent from everywhere, and I am proud to say I believe we have been successful in that.”
She has gone on to encourage and shape the young minds that pass through RPI halls.
“Every graduation day, I shake every graduate’s hand and give them a few words of encouragement. I do feel it’s very important to do that,” Dr. Jackson says. “They are the next generation of innovators and forward thinking bright minds that will shape the future.”
She still continued her public service aiding the Obama administration in areas of cyber security and digital technology as as co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. All this, her long journey, led her back to the White House for her greatest achievement yet in 2016, receiving the National Medal of Science.
“To be in the White House and to not just stand next to the president, but to have him actually put the medal around my neck, to do the whole thing, that was, I say, the proudest moment of my life,” Jackson says while looking fondly at a photo of herself standing next to President Obama.
While Beatrice and George Jackson hadn’t lived to see everything their daughter achieved, Shirley says she just hopes she’s made them proud.
“I hope so, but they still inspire me to keep pushing. My father had a saying, ‘Aim for the stars to reach the treetops,’ and then he would sometimes follow it with, ‘At least you’ll get off the ground.'”
A History Repeated
As the interview began to wind down, talk turned to the unusual year of 2020 and echoes of the past mirrored in social unrest across America.
“Every generation I feel has its moments, it’s turning points and also it’s challenges that the people of that generation need to address and overcome,” Jackson says.
“I think these protests, particularly watching George Floyd die in slow motion, sparked something, and I hope that takes us to the realization that there is a common good we all have to work towards,” she continues.
While the current climate proves the nation has a long way to go to fully achieve racial equality in the United States, two Black women on either side of a screen show there are many ways to be heard.
“We have made enormous progress in that regard. The fact that I’m sitting here talking with you is a testament to that,” Jackson says to Singleton. “This technology is a tremendous opportunity, and it’s very important that people understand that what seems so new today, is built on a backbone of knowledge generated over decades. These have opened vast new arenas that really didn’t exist in the early days of my career.”
She says she hopes those seeking their moment of this generation use technology to be heard and for the right reasons.
“It can be used for great good, but can be equally used for great harm. I hope that people can recognize if we all walk in the same direction, listen to each other, and work for a common goal, then that will ultimately lead to the best outcome for everyone.”