Dr. Shirley A. Jackson (1946-) is a physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the nation’s oldest technological university.
Born to Beatrice and George Jackson in Washington, D.C., Jackson developed a passion for science at the age of 8, spurred by her father’s assistance with projects for her science classes. She joined the accelerated programs for math and science and graduated valedictorian from segregated Roosevelt High School in 1964. Later that year, she became one of the first black students to be accepted at MIT and the only one studying theoretical physics.
While working on her undergraduate degree, she volunteered at Boston City Hospital and tutored students at the Roxbury YMCA. In 1968, Jackson earned her B.S. and chose to stay at MIT for her doctoral work to encourage more black students to attend. She completed her Ph.D. in 1973 and became the first black woman to earn a doctorate degree from the institution.
Dr. Jackson became a research associate in theoretical physics at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in 1973 and served as a visiting science associate at the European Organization for Nuclear Research from 1974–1975. She then returned to Fermilab as a research associate in theoretical physics. Jackson spent 1976–1977 at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and Aspen Center for Physics. She also served on the technical staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories in theoretical physics from 1976 until 1978. That year, Dr. Jackson began working with the technical staff of the Scattering and Low Energy Physics Research Laboratory of Bell Telephone Laboratories.
In 1976, Dr. Jackson was appointed professor of physics at Rutgers University and served until 1991. From 1991 to 1995, she served as a consultant in semiconductor theory to AT&T Bell Laboratories. In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed her Commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, becoming the first woman and first black person to hold the position.
Jackson became the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on July 1, 1999. She was the first woman and first black person to hold this position, as well. In 2001, she was elected member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). In December of the following year, Jackson was elected president-elect (2003) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the science journal Science. In 2004, Science Spectrum Magazine and Career Communications Group, Inc. selected Dr. Jackson as one of the 50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science.
Jackson is the former president and chairman of the Board of the AAAS; a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, The American Philosophical Society, the Council on Foreign Relations; and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, and the AAAS. She serves on a number of boards, including the New York Stock Exchange, the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, IBM, FedEx, MIT and Georgetown University.
Dr. Jackson holds 43 honorary doctoral degrees and has been described as “a national treasure” by the National Science Board who, in 2007, selected Jackson as the recipient of the Vannevar Bush Award for “a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy”. Other honors include the CIBA-GEIGY Exceptional Black Scientist Award, the Thomas Alva Edison Science Award, the Martin Marietta Aircraft Company Scholarship and Fellowship, the Prince Hall Masons Scholarship, the National Science Foundation Traineeship, and a Ford Foundation Advanced Study Fellowship.
In 1998, Dr. Jackson was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for “her significant contributions as a distinguished scientist and advocate for education, science and public policy”. She was also named one of the 50 Most Important Women in Science by Discover magazine. Jackson was recognized in a book published by Essence, titled 50 of The Most Inspiring African-Americans. In 2008, Jackson was honored with the L’Oreal USA For Women in Science Role Model Award, for raising awareness of the critical role that women play in the sciences.
Dr. Jackson is married to Dr. Morris A. Washington, a physics professor at Rensselaer, and the couple has one son, Alan, a graduate of Dartmouth College.
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