Against all odds

Despite the example set by her parents and her own drive to succeed, Jackson faced resistance throughout her education.

Photo of Against all odds

The odds were against Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson when she started school. As an African American girl, she was limited by segregation, despite a deep-rooted interest in science and math and a drive a to learn.

“When I started school, schools were segregated by law,” Jackson told students at Howard University, a historically black university, at an event hosted by the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation.

But two historical events would set her on a path headed for scientific accomplishment — and leadership. They would lead Jackson to be president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and receive the 2014 National Medal of Science.

“The first was the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that desegregated the public schools. Washington, D.C. … integrated schools the next year, in 1955,” Jackson said. “The second was the Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. It really made all of our policymakers and government leaders worry about falling behind the Soviets, vis-a-vis the space race.”

“That shifted the focus in public education very strongly to science and math,” she added.

Jackson also said she was lucky to have parents who served as educational role models, encouraging and supporting her love of learning.

“My mother taught all of us to read before we went to kindergarten and my father nurtured my interest in math and science,” she said.

Jackson’s mother had graduated from college and even done some post-graduate work at a time when education was not friendly to African Americans.

“Her older siblings pooled their resources to send her to a boarding school because there was no real high school for Negros in the part of Virginia where she grew up,” Jackson said.

Jackson’s father did not graduate from high school, “but he was gifted mechanically and mathematically,” Jackson said.

“He was actually part of the Normandy invasion in WWII,” Jackson said. “The amphibious landing vehicles kept losing their rudders. They kept breaking, and people were trying to figure out how to fix them. My father came up with a special mechanical splice that solved the problem.”

“Because of that, he got a bronze star. His method was taught throughout France for the rest of the war and was taught to people before they went.,” she added.

Despite the example set by her parents and her own drive to succeed, Jackson faced resistance throughout her education.

“We had a physics teacher when I was in high school who would come to class and just wouldn’t teach. All of us sitting in this class were pretty eager beavers,” she said. “We were trying to understand wave motion. He was supposed to show us the wave motion in a ripple tank.”

When the physics teacher refused to teach the class properly, Jackson stepped in.

“He said, ‘If you want a ripple tank, you do it yourself.’ So, I went home, and my father and I made a ripple tank,” Jackson said. “After that, the teacher gave up; he said Shirley can teach your class. I did teach the class for the rest of the semester.”

“There is not a place that anybody else should be that I can’t.”

Jackson thought her college experience would be more fulfilling when she began attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I went expecting it to be fun because I was going to school with other techies like me,” she said.

It was a far cry from her expectation.

“It was rather isolating … in terms of how I was treated,” she said. “No one would sit next to me in lecture halls. They would not eat with me in the cafeteria.”

Among the roughly 900 students, there were fewer than 10 African Americans — and only two women, including Jackson.

“I saw all the women on my floor working on physics problems. So, when I went back to my room, I gathered my paper, and I said, ‘may I join you?’ and one of them looked up and said, ‘go away,’” Jackson said. “And I said, ‘but I think I know — I’ve done half the problems and I know how to do the others.’ Then another one looked up and said, ‘well, didn’t you hear her?’ She said, ‘go away.’”

“So, I went back to my room, and I cried, and I cried. Then after about half an hour, 45 minutes I said, ‘I have to finish these problems,’” she added. “I had to learn to work alone. I would not argue that is the best way, but it’s the way I had to work at that point.”

Later when she sought advice about which area of physics to pursue, a professor told Jackson he wasn’t sure it was a good fit and that “colored girls should learn a trade.”

“I said, ‘Well, I guess my trade needs to be physics,” she said. “I don’t want to make you all think it was all so easy. It wasn’t. There were tears.”

“I had grown up in the church so I would read passages from the Bible,” she added. “I thought about my father, how much it meant to him, and others. I’m not the type to give up. I’ve always felt that there is not a place that anybody else should be that I can’t.”

Jackson said joining a sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, also helped her develop a community and overcome challenges she faced.

Driven by her personal experiences, Jackson is an advocate for bolstering women and minorities in science and technology.

“Women and underrepresented minorities have been disadvantaged in these fields,” Jackson said. “Talent comes in all ethnicities, genders, religions, national origins, etc. If one does not tap the complete talent pool, then one is not going to be able to solve great problems.”

“We’ve benefited in the country from having brilliant scientists and engineers come to us from all over the world. That is at risk right now,” she added. “But we also have under-tapped the talent pool of women and minorities in this country. When you bring those two together, if we stay on this path, then we are going to run into a calamity.”

Jackson said unrepresented groups are not only “an underutilized resource” but also an “undereducated resource.”

“We are resilient, but we have to be tenacious and relentless. I am relentless.”

“That means — as an educator and as a scientist who believes in the power of science and technology to uplift people’s lives — that we have to tap and utilize all the talent,” she said.

“If you add women and minorities together, that’s the majority. That’s the underrepresented majority,” Jackson added. “I am one who says you tap the complete talent pool. That doesn’t mean because I focus here I don’t focus there.”

In 2014, Dr. Jackson received the National Medal of Science, which she earned for her work on condensed matter and particle physics as well as her science-rooted public policy achievements, and her commitment to the next generation.

“The accolade that is most meaningful to me is being the recipient of the National Medal of Science, of course, but also to receive it from President Barack Obama,” she said. “President Obama really appreciated the importance of bringing science into public policy, into decision-making, into addressing major challenges and opportunities for our country and the world. That was very meaningful.”

Jackson is proof the “underrepresented majority” can overcome the odds, and she offered some advice to those following in her footsteps.

“What one has to do is to be tenacious, and relentless and resilient. We are resilient, but we have to be tenacious and relentless,” she said. “And I am relentless.”

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