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L’Oreal For Women in Science Luncheon Keynote

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

L’Oreal For Women in Science
American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York

Thursday, May 22, 2008


First, let me say that any and all of the women with whom I shared the panel this morning could have this received this recognition.  They all are extremely accomplished, and, as such, are role models themselves — across the generations — Elizabeth Blackburn, who is a L’Oreal-UNESCO Laureate, Helen Greiner, Danica McKellar and Isha Himani Jain.

As you may have divined, from my remarks at the opening of the morning panel, I had wonderful parents, and I stand before you today because of them.

This foundation, my education, and my own interests, have led me along an interesting career trajectory that has included a variety of leadership positions in higher education, in government, and in the corporate and financial sectors. Along the way, I have had to overcome a few hardships and have made a few breakthroughs. I attribute my ability to cope and to succeed to the steady wisdom of my upbringing, a firm focus on the bigger picture, an unyielding commitment to excellence, and a cross-disciplinary “interpretation” or “translation” which facilitates leadership.

But, I will begin at the beginning.

My parents believed in the value of family, the virtue of hard work, and the power of education. They believed in their children. They lived what they believed. And I and my siblings were the beneficiaries.

Building upon this auspicious beginning, the coalescence of two external events changed my life.

I had begun my schooling within the segregated public school system which existed at that time in Washington, D.C. Then, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted its landmark decision Brown vs. the Board of Education, and shortly thereafter, Washington, D.C. desegregated its public schools. The decision enabled me to attend the local public school, where there were more resources, more competition, and, ironically, greater diversity of thought.

The second event was the 1957 launch, by the Soviets, of the Sputnik satellite. The event riveted the nation, and, ultimately, spurred a defense-based science race. The federal government poured resources into public schools to bolster mathematics and science education, and into scholarships for those interested in pursuing advanced study in these subjects.

The convergence of these two events opened, for me, a window-in-time — an opportunity and a challenge. With this convergence, and bolstered by my parents’ strength and wisdom, I was able to take advantage of opportunities, as they arose.

I loved school and I did well, and became the valedictorian of my high school class. My good grades, and my interest in mathematics and science, set me on a path to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and, ultimately, to a Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics.

That path led me — a woman and an African American — through a number of challenges.

I was one of two African American women, and one of five African American students, in my freshman class. I found that classmates would not sit next to me in class or in the dining room, and specifically excluded me from study groups. Of course, I was hurt. But, after a few tears, I focused on my work and finished the homework problem sets.

As my coursework progressed that year, I chose physics as my major. But one professor had this advice for me. He said, “Colored girls should learn a trade.” I silently thought, “Well, I am learning a trade. I am learning physics.” And I decided that I would not allow other people’s attitudes to discourage me.

I tell these stories for several reasons.

First, it is important that we not forget prevailing attitudes in the not-so-distant past that contributed to an environment which discouraged whole segments of our population from advancing and contributing to the general good of society. Some of these attitudes unfortunately still prevail.

Second, it is important to see that prevailing attitudes do not necessarily have to govern our actions. I always remember my father’s wise advice — “you have your greatest control — and certainly your greatest influence — by how you control yourself.” Barriers can be overcome with focus, vision, excellence, hard work, and perseverance.

Ultimately, I earned my doctorate at M.I.T. as a theoretical physicist, with an original research specialty in high energy physics.  After post-doctoral work at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), I moved to AT&T Bell Laboratories to do theoretical condensed matter physics, especially on the opto-electronic properties of layered systems.

My work at Bell Labs focused on interactions of electrons with surface excitations, especially so-called polaronic effects, and how these interactions controlled electronic responses to light, magnetic fields, and other stimuli. This work helped in understanding how to tailor the desired properties of various semiconductor systems. I was recognized for this work by election to fellowship in the American Physical Society, and later, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

From this point, I credit my natural, scientist’s curiosity about the world and how it works, with leading me down a variety of related paths, which crisscrossed, complemented each other, and each of which helped to prepare me for what came next.

My interest in science and technology, and my research at AT&T Bell Laboratories, led me to observe what was going on around me in areas of public policy that impacted science and technology. As I began a professorship at Rutgers University, I began to “teach” — which, in one sense, is to “interpret” — between the world of advanced physics and those who are interested in learning it.

I was drawn to public policy, where one’s role, also, is to “teach,” or, perhaps one could say, to “translate” between two disparate worlds — the worlds of technology, business, and the public — enabling each to inform the other, so that policy better serves science and technology, and the sciences and technology better serve the public realm.

These attributes served me well as the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as they helped me to “translate” between and among the various worlds of the Congress, the public, the nuclear industry, and NRC employees. The NRC is charged with the protection of the public health and safety, the environment, and the common defense and security by licensing, regulating, and safeguarding the use of reactor byproduct material in the U.S.

As Chairman, I was the principal executive officer of, and the official spokesman for, the NRC. I had ultimate authority for all NRC functions pertaining to an emergency involving an NRC licensee. This includes nuclear power plants; research, test, and training reactors; fuel cycle facilities; (including uranium mining, enrichment and fuel fabrication) reactor byproduct use in medicine, industry and research; the transportation, storage, and disposal of high-level and low-level radioactive waste; and the licensing of nuclear exports for peaceful uses.

During my tenure, I initiated a strategic assessment and rebaselining of the agency, leading to a new planning, budgeting, and performance management system for the NRC. I conceptualized and introduced risk-informed, performance-based regulation (utilizing probabilistic risk assessment on a consistent basis), which has been infused throughout its regulatory programs. Elements of the approach also have been incorporated into the nuclear regulatory programs of other nations. I led the development of a new reactor oversight program, and created, with the Commission, a license renewal process resulting in the first renewal (in March 2000) of the license of an operating reactor in the United States.

While I was Chairman of the NRC, I spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA) in 1997. The association comprises the most senior nuclear regulatory officials from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States (and now South Korea and China). As the first elected Chairman of the INRA, I guided its development as a high-level forum to examine issues, and to offer assistance to other nations, on matters of nuclear safety.

My experience as NRC Chairman, led me to make three observations:

First, I found that leadership enabled me to make a national difference and a global difference, and to use the unique aspects of my educational background, and an inherent multi-cultural sensitivity which I had due to my own background, upbringing, and experience.

Second, I discovered that here, in the United States, we had insufficient scientific expertise at the highest policy levels in our government. This is serious when dealing with nuclear issues, but also, all other issues including energy, the environment, space, disease, defense, clean water, civil infrastructure, etc.

Third, there were very few women in the nuclear arena, especially internationally. And, I have seen this last repeated in a variety of scientific fields.

These observations reinforced my resolve to change the face of science and engineering — to ensure the participation of women and under-represented minorities, which, together, create the “new majority” or the “underrepresented majority.”

Now, as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I have both an opportunity and a platform.

The opportunity is the transformation of Rensselaer, the nation’s oldest technological research university, into a top-tier world class university with global reach and global impact. This includes incorporating policy changes to increase the participation of women in the senior faculty ranks, particularly in science and engineering through a program we call RAMP-UP. This program has received support from the National Science Foundation ADVANCE Initiative.

RAMP-UP is designed to engage the academic community in discussion, analyze and conceptualize issues, build networks, and — most of all — build trust. It is paving the way for institutionalizing change at Rensselaer, and for influencing change across other science and engineering institutions of higher education.

The number of women faculty at Rensselaer has increased 39 percent since 2001, with growth at the senior level up 75 percent. Women now constitute approximately 20 percent of the faculty. But we must do more.

To that end, we are creating a Center for Faculty Diversity. These early accomplishments, and our new Center, will make our campus more welcoming and supportive for women and minority faculty members and, at the same time, strengthen our efforts to increase the number of young women and minority students on our campus.

We also have instituted a number of family and women-friendly policies, which include family leave for new parents, and now, a formal maternity leave program for female graduate students.

The platform I have has enabled me to speak on the national and international stages to begin a dialogue on what I call the Quiet Crisis. While, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and especially the people who do this work, have formed the basis for our national security and economic wellbeing for decades, converging forces are interfering with our full attraction and development of these valuable professionals.

The scientists and engineers who came of age in the post-Sputnik era, are beginning to retire. At the same time, we are no longer producing sufficient numbers of new graduates to replace them. We continue to be a magnet for talented young people from abroad who come to the U.S. for advanced education and training, yet, an increasing number are returning home after their studies — some early in their careers, some later.

We have had, and still have, great advantage: world class research universities, entrepreneurial and risk-taking culture, strong capital markets, talent and government support for research. We cannot take these advantages for granted, and there is a global need for talent. Other nations have learned from us and are emulating us. They are building their physical, research, and human capital infrastructure, and drawing talent to them.

There is an urgent need for our nation to tap our entire talent pool, in particular, women and minorities — groups historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Why? Our demographics have shifted. The “new majority” in the United States now comprises young women and the racial and ethnic groups which, traditionally, have been underrepresented in advanced science and engineering schools. It is to these “nontraditional” young people to whom we must look for our future scientists and engineers, while stimulating interest in science and engineering among all of our young people.

I have been grateful for this platform that my university presidency has afforded.

My professional activities have allowed me to be engaged, simultaneously, across a range of sectors and disciplines — all focused on developing a better future — through the power of science and technology, and through education. The breadth and depth of these undertakings have enabled me to have a broader perspective — to see connections and necessary undertakings; to speak to them and to help shape them.

You may have noticed I have related only a few early episodes relating to hardships, myths, and barriers. This is deliberate. I am an optimist. I prefer the positive. I have kept my focus on making a difference, and I have found that the ability to interpret and to translate between disciplines or sectors, broadened by a vision of the bigger picture, transmits a particular power — a power that trumps myths and misperceptions, a power which transcends prevailing attitudes.

So many myths about women — what women can and cannot do — already have been dispelled: women should not vote, or work, or govern! Women cannot serve in the armed forces, do not like mathematics, do not “do” science.

More is the wonder that there are still so many myths to dispel! And for this, I cannot close without commending L’Oréal for its focus on women, for its philosophy of “first being diverse from within,” for its focus on “For Women in Science” initiatives, and especially for its efforts to dispel myths and misperceptions.

This is what makes a difference. This is what it is to be a global leader. And for this, all women, everywhere, thank you. I thank you.

Thank you very much.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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