Visionary STEM Leader
Shirley Ann Jackson
August 5, 1946 – Present
Shirley Ann Jackson was born in 1946 in Washington, D.C. to Beatrice and George Jackson. She graduated as valedictorian of her class at Roosevelt Senior High School in Washington, D.C. Following high school, she started her studies in theoretical physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dr. Jackson was one of the first Black students to attend MIT and encountered severe racism during her nine years of attendance. Although students told her to go away or avoided her during meals, Jackson soldiered on, receiving her B.S. in 1968 and her Ph.D. in 1973 in particle physics.
Dr. Jackson was the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. from MIT. During her tenure there, she helped form the Black Student Union and was partially responsible for the formation of the Task Force on Education Opportunities, on which she served as a member before graduating with her doctorate. While on the task force, Dr. Jackson travelled with others to recruit Black students, which found 57 new Black student applicants attending MIT following its first year.
After obtaining her Ph.D., Jackson began post-doctorate work at Fermilab located near Chicago, Illinois. In 1976, she was hired by Bell Laboratories in New Jersey as a theoretical physicist. She worked for Bell Labs for several years before transitioning to Rutgers University in 1991, where she added public policy work to her repertoire.
Dr. Jackson was approached by President Bill Clinton in 1994 to use her expertise on various governmental boards and institutions. Among her initial posts were memberships to the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and the U.S. Department of Energy Task Force regarding growing its multipurpose national laboratories. During this time, Dr. Jackson also gave time to several New Jersey institutions, most notably the Commission on Science and Technology.
Dr. Jackson served as chairman and principal executive officer of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) from 1995 to1999. This position gave Dr. Jackson ultimate authority for decision making in NRC functions. The NRC is tasked with licensing, regulating, and safeguarding the use of nuclear reactor byproduct materials in the U.S. as well as protecting public health and safety, the environment. It also serves to provide common defense and security functions. While at the NRC, Dr. Jackson streamlined the NRC into a more businesslike format, including innovations in planning, budgeting, and performance management. These innovations were implemented by other agencies, both in the U.S. and in other countries.
Dr. Jackson served as representative of the NRC from 1995 to 1998 at the General Conferences of the International Atomic Energy Agency (Vienna, Austria). During these conferences as well as after, Dr. Jackson drove the creation and growth of the International Nuclear Regulator’s Association. This association provides a forum for high-level discussions examining nuclear safety issues and assistance between nations to achieve safety related goals.
During 2001 to 2005, Dr. Jackson served on the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and on the National Advisory Council for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering for the National Institute of Health.
President Barak Obama appointed Dr. Jackson to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in 2009. During her five-year tenure she and other council members assisted President Obama by creating policies affecting science, technology, and innovation to strengthen the economy and increase opportunity among various sectors. During this time, Dr. Jackson co-chaired the President’s Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee, a division of PCAST. Through this role, Dr. Jackson co-authored a 2011 report to the President in which she offered an overarching revitalization strategy aimed at the leadership of the U.S. in manufacturing. The President later named Dr. Jackson to the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee 2.0. This committee is responsible for making recommendations to revitalize the U.S.’s manufacturing center.
Simultaneously, Dr. Jackson served on the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board, the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, and the U.S. Comptroller-General’s Advisory Committee for Governmental Accountability Office.
Dr. Jackson currently continues her work as a theoretical physicist while serving as the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological research university located in the U.S. Under Dr. Jackson’s administration, Rensselaer has become a world-class technological research institution.
- Roosevelt Senior High School, 1964
- B.S., Physics, MIT, 1968
- Ph.D., Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics, MIT, 1973
Special Affiliations, Awards, and Honors
- Outstanding Young Women of America, 1976 and 1981
- Candace Aware for Technology from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, 1982
- National Women’s Hall of Fame, 1998
- Richtmyer Memorial Award (American Association of Physics Teachers), 2001
- Vannevar Bush Award, 2007
- University Vice Chairman of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, 2008
- National Medal of Science, 2014
- Black Student Union at MIT, one of the founders
- President, American Association of the Advancement of Science, 2004
“Do not let others define who you are. Define yourself. Do not be limited by what others expect of you, but reach confidently for the stars.”