Building on Dreams: Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson’s Path of Firsts

Driven by her own interests, Jackson explains why nurturing passions is pivotal.

Photo of Building on Dreams: Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson’s Path of Firsts

Everyone starts with a dream.

But how that dream is expressed and encouraged is what really leads to success, according to Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson.

As a young girl, she started with a simple dream: to make a difference. The way she set out to do that was by pursuing her interests and building on her love of discovery and science.


From a young age, Jackson says she knew she wanted to do something related to science. In elementary school, she would capture bees from her backyard, poked holes in the top of the jar she kept them in, and made observations about how their behavior changed based on the environmental condition.

“I might not have been entirely aware of it as such, but I was using the scientific method,” Jackson says. “This early interest got expressed through what was available and what we could do. It wasn’t through a formalized program.”

Natural curiosity and motivation, as well as encouragement from her parents, helped propel Jackson into a career of many firsts. In 1973, Jackson became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – in any field. In the 1990s, Jackson was the first woman and first African American to chair the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Today, she serves as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, again as the first woman and the first African American to hold the position. She’s also held several positions in public service, including a spot on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

Dr. Jackson early in her career

“She’s used her research knowledge in a really wide range of ways that can show possibilities for what you can do with a physics degree,” says Dr. Heather Metcalf, director of research and analysis for the Association for Women in Science. “There’s that stereotype out there that physics is about being holed up in a lab, and watching her pathway unfold you can see she’s not just doing her research in a lab, but she’s applying it in a number of different ways for anyone looking up to her as a role model.”

Metcalf says Jackson has also been a trailblazer in terms of honors and distinctions. Among the many accolades she’s received over the years is a National Medal of Science for her work in theoretical physics. Metcalf says these types of distinctions are notable for several reasons, one being that while women are disproportionately more likely to earn service and teaching awards, they are less likely to receive research and scholarly awards, such as the National Medal of Science.

Regardless of the proportion of men and women within a candidate pool, Metcalf says, men are twice as likely to win such an award, according to research AWIS has conducted. When proportion is taken into account, however, men are eight times more likely to win, she says.

“To see her be an exception to that bias we usually see in award allocation –– it’s a particularly high achievement to see her break through from that,” Metcalf says.

Dr. Jackson at MIT

Jackson credits at least some of her success to advice from her father. One piece of advice that particularly struck her was when her father would tell her that in order to get to the next best job, you have to do as well as you can in your current position. To Jackson, that meant doing something meaningful in each job she had, and leaving a record behind –– even when she encountered “overt discrimination or discouragement.”

“A lot of the discouragement was being ignored,” Jackson says. “I could go to class and no one would sit next to me or around me. People formed study groups … and I’d be left out. I could go sit in the dining hall in the dorm and sometimes the other women would get up and leave. And if I happened to sit at an empty table, it stayed empty.”

Jackson recalls one incident in particular when she went to talk to a physics professor –– who taught a course she was excelling in –– about majoring in physics. In response, the professor told her that “colored girls should learn a trade,” and encouraged her to pick another subject.

“That certainly stung, but I had to decide whether I was going to give in to that,” she says. “I made that choice, and that’s how I became a theoretical physicist.”

That sense of determination and strength of character is why many in academia, and in the STEM fields see Jackson as a role model.

When it was announced in December that Jackson was among the newest batch of recipients for the National Medal of Science, Wanda Denson-Low, a member of RPI’s Board of Trustees, said Jackson has “worked tirelessly in the pursuit of research, STEM education for all students, in service to our government, and for Rensselaer.”

Dr. Jackson at RPI

“Dr. Jackson has been a role model for all women globally, not just for those who wish to pursue science and engineering, and she has inspired all those who have crossed her path,” Denson-Low said.

To Jackson, being a role model is about showing you can make a difference, and cultivating talent. That’s why she’s made a concerted effort to encourage women at RPI, not just “talking the game,” she says, but making sure both the university itself and the system as a whole encourage them through fair consideration for positions, and providing the kind of mentoring they need to succeed.


Jackson says, “We need all the talent we can have. We need great discoveries and innovations, and they’re going to come from the complete talent pool. You can’t leave out 50 percent of the population or more and feel you’re tapping the complete talent.”


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