Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D. is the first African-American woman to earn a doctor degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as the second African-American woman to earn a doctorate in physics and the first to be awarded the national medal of science. She is highly respected as both a physicist and as an inventor.
Dr. Jackson began her life as an accelerated student even in High School.
Dr. Jackson was born August 5, 1946 in Washington, D.C. Her parent, Beatrice and George Jackson, encouraged her in school, especially her interest in science. She took accelerated programs in both math and science in high school, graduating in 1964.
After high school, she went on to MIT as one of fewer than 20 African American students to attend MIT and the only one studying theoretical physics. She was also one of only thirty women of any minority. After getting her bachelor’s degree in 1968, she continued at MIT for grad school. There she worked on elementary particle theory. In 1973, she received a Ph.D. in nuclear Physics.
Throughout her career, Dr. Jackson has worked on theoretical physics.
Her specialty being condensed matter physics and a particular focus on layered systems and “opto-electronic materials”. As a postdoctoral researcher, she worked with subatomic particles. She conducted her research at various physics laboratories in both the United States and in Europe. In 1976, she began working for The Theoretical Physics Research Departments at AT&T Bell Laboratories, focusing initially on researching materials to be used as semiconductors. She joined the Scattering and Low Energy Physics Department in 1978.
From 1976 through to 1991 while working at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, Dr. Jackson’s research focused on solid state and quantum physics. She conducted her research on the optical and electronic properties of layered materials. This included examining them in layered compounds and the polarity of electrons in the surfaces of liquid helium.
Her research focus shifted in 1988 and she switched to working for the Solid State and Quantum Physics Research Department. She published many scientific articles as a result of her research.
Accomplishments and Achievements
In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed her to serve as chairwoman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, making her both the first woman and the first African American in that position. In this position, she oversaw the regulations and licensing of Nuclear power plants, nuclear research, the testing and training of nuclear reactors, the handling of both nuclear fuel and nuclear waste, nuclear materials used in medicine, industry, and research, and both the transportation and non-military exports of nuclear materials.
One important legacy of her tenure there was that she led the creation of the International Nuclear Regulatory Commission (INRC) which was formed in May of 1997.
In 1999, she became the 18th president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, thus becoming the first African American and first woman to be the president of a technical university. In 2009, appointed by President Barack Obama, Dr. Jackson joined the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).
She has served on numerous committees over the year. Dr. Jackson is a lifetime trustee for MIT. She has also served as a director of a number of major corporations such as AT&T and Marathon Oil. She has received many honors over her career, including the National Medal of Science in 2014.
In addition, she has received 52 honorary doctoral degrees for her work. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of fame in 1998. And appointed an International Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2012. She then served as a Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) for President Obama (29th August, 2014- 20th January, 2017).
Other African-American Women of interest for Black History Month
- Rebecca Davis Lee Coleman, MD. – First African-American Woman Physician (1834)
- Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman – First African-American and Native American Woman to get her pilot’s license.
- Octavia Butler – African-American Science Fiction Author
- Althea Gibson – African-American Tennis Player and Golfer
Photo credit: World Economic Forum (Qilai Shen). The photo used in the images on this page were retrieved from Wiki Commons. The license can be viewed by following that link. No changes were made to the actual photo. “Shirley Ann Jackson, President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), speaks during the “WHAT IF: the United States remains in a jobless recovery in 2011?” session at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, China, September 15, 2010. “