Nuclear Safety


Aim For the Stars

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Shirley Ann Jackson absorbed her father's precept. "Aim for the stars."
 "Aim for the stars," he urged each of his children. "So that you can reach the treetops, and at least you'll get off the ground."

Gary Gold

 His advice took hold. By the time she was 8, Shirley Ann Jackson already was taking aim—developing passions for science, for knowledge, for accomplishment.
 Last December, meeting the Rensselaer campus community for the first time, she shared a classic childhood tale of youthful enthusiasm—harnessed to serious purpose:
 "As I was growing up, I became fascinated with the notion that the physical world around me was a world of secrets. What fascinated me even more was that science, as applied in direct experimentation, was the key that could unlock those secrets. I recall one three-year period when I was fascinated with bees. During this time I collected and experimented on live bees of all sorts—bumblebees, yellow jackets, and wasps. I adjusted their habitats, their diets, their exposure to light and heat, all the while keeping a detailed log of my observations of their behavior. My parents, needless to say, were very indulgent (given that much of my laboratory was buzzing under our back porch). It must have been somewhat trying, but nevertheless they encouraged me to pursue a developing interest in science."
 Today, Jackson is still a student, a person whose drive to learn and to understand has formed the underpinning of a wide-ranging career: theoretical physicist for AT&T Bell Laboratories; professor and Ph.D. adviser at Rutgers University; Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); and now president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
 "She will be unique as the president of a major university," says Dr. Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), "in the sense that she has very substantial experience in industry, academe, and government.
 "She's had a genuine trial by fire as an executive because serving as Chairman of the NRC is not an easy task and she's had to deal there with people with very strong views, and for very high stakes," Vest adds. "She has a very deep belief in the importance of the academic institution. She doesn't see things simply as a manager or a trustee. She understands what it's all about for faculty and students, and that is perhaps the most important criterion for an administrator of an academic institution."


Jackson was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame (l) in 1998; she taught physics at Rutgers 1991-95 (r).

Aiming for the stars has led Jackson to achieve many firsts. She is the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in any field, one of the first two African-American women to earn a Ph.D. in physics in the United States, the first woman and the first African-American to chair the NRC, and now the first African-American woman to head a national research university. She was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998.
 Jackson credits her success to the bedrock guidance of her parents and their belief in education as the basis for success and good citizenship. She grew up in Washington, D.C., where her mother, Beatrice Cosby Jackson, a social worker, taught Jackson and her siblings to read, and encouraged her reading and writing. Her father, George H. Jackson, postal employee, supported her interest in math and science. The result was a teenager who spent evenings sitting on the front porch reading Latin texts for recreation—and who built go-carts with her younger sister Gloria Joseph, who is now an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board.
 Two historic events greatly influenced her formative years, says Jackson. The first was the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that desegregated the nation's public schools. The second occurred three years later when the former Soviet Union launched the first Earth—orbiting satellite, and the United States woke up to the space race.
 Sputnik's launch galvanized the country. The nation focused its attention on nurturing youthful science talent with accelerated programs for gifted high school students. Jackson, who had begun her schooling in a segregated grammar school, by secondary school was attending the integrated Roosevelt High School where she was able to take advantage of an enriched science curriculum—and from which she graduated as valedictorian.
 "It [the Sputnik launch] happened on the cusp of legal desegregation," Jackson said to the Washington Post in a 1995 interview. "One could say that I was the beneficiary of that coincidence—of desegregation and the nation's interest in science and technology."
 She arrived at MIT at the end of the "Freedom Summer," when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just become law. One of less than a dozen African-Americans in an MIT undergraduate student body of 4,000, Jackson found herself isolated at first. "I was cut out of study groups until people found out what I could do and that I was as serious as they were. In a word, that I was as good as they were," Jackson recalls. In 1965, while still deciding on a major, she was approached by a professor who offered a piece of career advice. "Colored girls should learn a trade," he said. As she recounts her experience today, Jackson notes, "I did choose a trade—I chose physics." While an undergraduate, Jackson organized the Black Student Association, and increased the number of minority students at MIT from two to 57 in just one year.
 In a recent speech to the American Nuclear Society, she said that she learned from the MIT experience that being under a microscope could have both advantages and disadvantages. The risk was being depersonalized. But a person's outstanding work would be noticed and remembered.
 Former MIT President Dr. Paul Gray remembers. He first met Shirley Jackson in the fall of 1968 when as associate provost he chaired MIT's newly formed Task Force on Educational Opportunity, created following the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy that spring. "Shirley became the leader of the student group and almost certainly was the most thoughtful person in the room," Gray says. "She had the ability to take hard issues and find agreement. That quality was in her at age 22. She stood out as quite extraordinary."
 President Vest notes, "She has had a very interesting experience as an African-American woman of her generation. She will have, more strongly than most of us, a depth of understanding of what a changing population really means."
 Jackson was elected twice to the MIT Corporation (Board of Trustees) before being elected to one of 24 Life Memberships in the 74-member Corporation. She has also served on the MIT executive committee, a smaller group of trustees that meets monthly and more directly oversees the university's operation.

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