Lessons in Resilience and Self-Confidence: An Evening With Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

Dr. Jackson spoke at MIT about being a change agent, education, and the intersection of science and public policy.

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Editor’s Note: An Evening With Shirley Ann Jackson took place September 26, 2017 at the MIT Media Lab. Full event video and video highlights are available on the NSTMF Youtube channel.

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson knew from a young age that she wanted to make a difference in other people’s lives. But to get to that point, she had to focus on her own goals first.

“I grew up with the perspective that it’s hard to carry someone else if you can’t walk yourself,” she said. “If one is not successful in what one is doing, it’s hard to really influence and have the authority and power to change things.”

Dr. Jackson shared her experiences with a group of dozens of students, faculty, and community members gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. Throughout the evening, Dr. Jackson spoke about her own career trajectory – moving between industry, academia, and government – how she overcame obstacles to succeed in her field, and the future of STEM in America.

Throughout her career, Dr. Jackson has literally changed the world, said L. Rafael Reif, president of MIT.

“Despite the difficulties she endured, she would go on to become part of MIT’s history,” Reif said.

When she began her studies at MIT, she was one of just two African American female undergraduate students, and one of only seven black students in her class overall. In 1973, Dr. Jackson became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT in any field.

“On the one hand, it was exhilarating being at MIT. I wanted to be a scientist, and I loved the subject matter,” Dr. Jackson said. “But on the other, it was isolating, and rather lonely.”​

Dr. Jackson recounted how she struggled with the social aspect of college. She was left out of study groups and shunned by some groups of students.

“There are lessons one can learn about resilience and focus,” she said. “But really more than anything else, self-confidence.”

Though she was quiet and focused on her studies, she also knew that she had to speak up. Dr. Jackson finished her undergraduate studies at MIT around the same time the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. When that happened, seeing how few African American students were enrolled at MIT, and how relatively few women were there pushed Dr. Jackson to band together with other students to make some diversity-focused proposals to the administration.

Dr. Jackson worked as part of a task force on educational opportunity working on how to recruit African American students, how to award financial aid, and how to develop a summer program – now called Project Interphase – to help incoming freshmen prepare for the years to come. The university went from having five or fewer African-American students each year, to nearly 60 the year after the task force was formed.

“What I’m proud of is to see people like you here, and the fact that as I look out into this audience, how many I see,” Dr. Jackson said to a student who had just gone through Project Interphase. “To be able to see that kind of change here at all levels – the student body, undergraduates, graduate students, and especially the faculty – not just because somebody happens to be here, but because they had an opportunity, and they achieved. That’s what it’s really all about.”

And while there is still much work to be done in terms of the underrepresentation of minority students, the problem stems from issues much earlier in life, Dr. Jackson said. More work, she said, should be focused on what’s happening in primary and secondary education.

“Too often, the fight occurs at what I call the ‘door to college,’” she said. “That’s where we really have to think.”

That belief played into Dr. Jackson’s decision to take on the role of president at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). The science and engineering workforce, she said, is still a small fraction of the overall workforce, and technological universities play a unique role in preparing others for those fields and strengthening that part of the workforce.

“I believe very strongly in the role and power [of technological universities] to really elevate people’s lives and to make a difference in their lives,” she said.

When she came to RPI, Dr. Jackson said the university needed an “aspirational vision” to become a “top tier, world class technological research university with global reach and global impact.” So she set out to work that vision into a larger comprehensive plan, now in its second version.

But no matter how much a university is strengthened, it cannot work alone. The so-called three-legged stool of academia, government, and industry, she said, plays a role in shaping society today.

“If you look at where we’ve made some of the greatest leaps forward, whether it has to do with human health and the mitigation of disease or leaps in infrastructure … if you actually looked at everything that’s behind it, those things have all occurred when government, industry, and academia have come together,” Dr. Jackson said.

Sometimes one leg will progress more quickly than the others, pushing them to also make change, but it’s most effective when all three work together, she said. Having worked in all three areas throughout her career has given Dr. Jackson the opportunity to achieve a goal she’s had her entire life: to make a difference.

“I’ve always thought of my life as being a continuum, and in a way it kind of doubles back on itself,” she said. “What I do today is less about my doing research directly … but more about enabling others, and bringing along the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

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