After a remarkable career spanning nearly 50 years, STEM pioneer, physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, retired.
In 1973, Jackson graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a doctorate in theoretical elementary particle physics, making her the first black woman to earn a doctorate in any field from the renowned university. She was also one of the first black women to receive a bachelor’s degree from the school.
Her time at MIT provided the foundation for her professional life and set her on the path to help others along the way, Jackson told ABC News. She described how the events of the past 50 years have shaped not only her work, but also how she can be an example to others.
“Looking around, I knew there weren’t many African Americans when I was a student, especially not as a college graduate,” Jackson said. She added that doing the best work she could in her own career could help others.
Jackson said she looks back on her life through “windows in time” marked by historical events that led her to create one of her own.
Jackson recalls being deeply involved in the politics that influenced her childhood so much. Although she lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, she was unable to attend the segregated school closest to her home. However, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 changed that.
“It was an interesting experience,” she says. “You could say it was more competitive because it was a wider range of people you were competing with.”
Just a few years later, the launch of Sputnik 1 intensified the US-Soviet Space Race.
“That made public policy makers and politicians nervous. And so the curriculum in the public schools was changed to put a lot more emphasis on science and math,” Jackson said of how she’d been further immersed in the field.
Her focus earned her two scholarships to MIT. Though she initially thought she would take math, Latin and Greek, she soon became interested in quantum mechanics, where she excelled despite the social challenges she faced.
“It wasn’t always friendly at MIT,” she said. “If I was sitting alone at a table, often no one else would come and join us, but if I went and sat down at the table, people would suddenly finish their meals… and so in that sense it was very isolating.”
Undeterred, she found community in the regional branch of the historically black sorority Delta Sigma Theta. She would be president of the sorority for two years. She said it taught her “resilience, inventiveness, ingenuity” while giving her an outlet, as MIT didn’t have a chapter of its own at the time.
Towards the end of her senior year, in April 1968, Jackson was driving back from a graduate school visit when she learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis. When she heard the news of his death, she thought about how she could make a difference.
“I thought about how quiet I was as a student. And I felt that there was something I had to do and should do at MIT to bring in more African American and minority students and to become more welcoming to such students. And so in the end I decided to stay at MIT,” Jackson told ABC News.
Jackson took action and co-founded the school’s Black Student Union, which was instrumental in starting Project Interphase, a summer program designed to help new students get on with life at MIT. The program, still running today, grew out of an education opportunities task force that sought to expand the candidate pool and promote diversity at MIT.
After years of advancement in her postdoctoral work at research and development company Bell Labs and the particle physics lab Fermilab, Jackson was named chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1995 by President Bill Clinton.
She returned to academia in 1999 as the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to found an institution with the “global reach and impact” it has today. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed Jackson as co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
From notable firsts to nuclear frameworks, Jackson has left her mark on the world. Reflecting on what it has all meant to her, she told ABC News that she is close to her memory of her father and the impact her work has had on others.
“It’s about being able to walk so you can carry someone else,” she said. “The more influential the positions I’ve held and the more powerful they’ve become, the more I’ve been able to help people develop open doors and help people move through them. That’s what has meaning to me.”