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."
His advice took hold. By the time she was 8, Shirley Ann Jackson
already was taking aimdeveloping passions for science, for knowledge,
Last December, meeting the Rensselaer campus community for the first
time, she shared a classic childhood tale of youthful enthusiasmharnessed
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 sortsbumblebees, 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
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."
WOMAN OF FIRSTS
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
recreationand 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 Earthorbiting 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 curriculumand 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 coincidenceof 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 tradeI 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
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
All rights reserved
© 1999 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Send comments, opinions, or questions to email@example.com