March 27, 2020
Visionary, trailblazer, innovator, and educator—a few words describing the career and impact of Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson who broke gender and racial barriers to become one of America’s science and technology leaders.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Born in our nation’s capital, Dr. Jackson was no stranger to American history, and neither were her parents who read her biographies of famous African-American scientists and inventors and encouraged her school science projects.
That influence paid off.
In 1964, Dr. Jackson graduated from high school as valedictorian and began classes at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She was among the first African-American students to attend MIT, and one of only two women in her undergraduate class.
In 1973, Dr. Jackson graduated from MIT as the first woman to receive a physics Ph.D. in the school’s 112-year history. She pursued her doctorate at MIT to encourage other black students to attend the school. After graduation, she immediately landed a job as a research associate studying subatomic particles at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.
Dr. Jackson would work at other notable laboratories across the United States and Europe, such as the Aspen Center for Physics, European Organization for Nuclear Research, and AT&T Bell Laboratories. For all her vital work she was elected to the MIT Corporation’s Board of Trustees.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Jackson to serve as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 1999, she was named the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a role she still holds today.
What did each of these achievements have in common? They were all “firsts.”
She served as the first woman and first African-American to earn each of these distinctions. TIME Magazine recognized Jackson as “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science,” and this remains true today.
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, the career of Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is not just a triumph in its own right, but a symbol of inspiration for future generations. Her career achievements have opened doors for fellow African-American women to follow her footsteps and eventually blaze their own path in science and technology.