21st Century Pioneer
Somewhere on Dr. Shirley Jackson’sto-do list is a reminder to get a new screensaver
The current one on her desk at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) features a changing schematic of designs for industrial piping. She’s searching for something rural to replace it, probably a screensaver that features a house with snow falling. Looking at it, she says, will prepare her for the transition to her new job as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y.“I can learn to love the snow,” jokes Jackson, who faces the prospect of many more inches of snow in upstate New York than she’s seen in Washington.But snow is a minor inconvenience to a woman who has overcome many obstacles in her scientific career and is now poised to become the first Black woman to head a major research institution.Ostracized by many of her freshmen classmates as one of two Black women at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology in 1965, Jackson went on to become the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in physics from MIT in 1973.As a professor and researcher at Bell Laboratories, she has earned a reputation as a gifted manager who excels at consensus building. Then in 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed her to head the NRC, making her the first woman and first African American to lead the agency.But despite her groundbreaking achievements, few have followed in her footsteps. According to the National Science Foundation, Black students earned only 2 percent of the doctorates in science in 1996. Jackson views her new position as an opportunity to remind the nation about the need for a diverse workforce.“Rensselaer picked me as the kind of person they needed to lead them into the next century,” Jackson says. “As president of a major university, I will have a platform to speak out broadly about the need to prepare more women and minorities for careers in thesciences.”Jackson sees an urgent need to work with the nation’s elementary and secondary schools to give more children the preparation they need for math and science careers. And she says she hopes to create more partnerships with universities and institutions to increase the number of Black and other minorities who earn doctorates in the sciences.Her appointment has created a buzz on Rensselaer’s campus and in the university community, says Shirley McBay, president of Quality Education for Minorities. “Folks are excited,” she says. “They are celebrating this achievement because Black women have the opportunity to break the ceiling.”In fact, Jackson will become one of a highly exclusive group. Only 24 Black women are presidents of four-year colleges and universities in the country. Among institutions with Carnegie classifications of Research I or II, only three are headed by Black men — and Jackson is the first woman.Jackson succeeds R. Byron Pipes, who resigned from the Rensselaer presidency in the spring of 1998 after the faculty senate voted no confidence in him.“[Jackson’s appointment] is symbolic because it takes us to the principal chair in the room,” says Dr. Isaac Colbert, senior associate dean for graduate studies at MIT. “I hope that it sends a message that people of color can succeed and be invited to places where they had not been invited before.”Jackson’s appointment also may make the university a more attractive place for Black faculty. Currently, Rensselaer has only four Black professors and 4 percent of the university’s students are Black. “Sadly, we haven’t had a history of diversity among our faculty,” says Dr. George Campbell Jr., president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Inc. (NACME), and a Rensselaer trustee. “There hasn’t been a lot to attract them to Troy.”Jackson’s visibility and extensive network of scientists will draw more people of color to Rensselaer and to the fields of mathematics and science, he predicts. Campbell gives the institution credit for appointing Jackson even though she has never run a university.“It reflects positively on the vision of a board that is primarily White and male,” he says, adding that she wowed the campus with her vision of what a world class university could be. “And they were able to see beyond the superficial and see that Shirley had attained significant prominence in the research and development community.”Jackson answers skeptics who say she doesn’t have any university experience by pointing to her tenure at the NRC, an organization with a $473 million budget and nearly 3,000 employees. Even as a young girl growing up in Washington, D.C., during the 1950s, Jackson was already preparing for a career in science by conducting scientific experiments with the honeybees she kept under her family’s porch. She credits her father, a postal supervisor, and her mother, a social worker, for instilling her with a love of learning.“My father had an expression: ‘Aim for the stars so that you can reach the tree tops,'” she recalls. “The message was that if you don’t aim high, you don’t go far. I’ve carried that with me my whole life.”After graduating from Washington’s Roosevelt High School, Jackson was accepted to MIT. It was, she says, a difficult experience being one of two Black women in a freshmen class of 900.During her first year there, one of her professors gave her a piece of career advice: “Colored girls should learn a trade.” She didn’t listen.“I’ve never felt that there’s anyplace they could be that I couldn’t be,” she says. As an undergraduate at MIT, she founded the Black Students Association and helped increase the number of African Americans entering the university — from two to 57 in just one year.After completing her doctoral studies at MIT, Jackson went to work at Bell Laboratories, where she conducted research in theoretical, solid-state, and quantum physics. It was at Bell Labs, that she met her husband, Dr. Morris Washington, who also is a scientist.In 1991, she became a professor of physics at Rutgers University, and she currently serves on a number of corporate and academic boards — including that of MIT.Four years into her post at the NRC, Jackson has won considerable praise for restoring credibility to a troubled agency and increasing the agency’s oversight over several nuclear power plants.“The NRC was in deep trouble before she came,” says NACME’s Campbell. “She single-handedly reorganized that agency.”While head of the NRC, Jackson also has been able to assemble a diverse management team at the agency. “We just don’t have people to waste in this country,” Jackson says. “Our challenge is to ensure that the opportunities are there for people with talent and motivation. If we give people an opportunity, they will grow and meet expectations.”Jackson certainly has high expectations of her son, Alan Washington, as he waits out the college admission process this spring. She and her husband raised their son to believe that anything is possible with talent and hard work.Black people must expand their ideas about the “restricted universe of careers that Black people often limit themselves to — like law, education, social work,” she says. “African-Americans should be involved in all aspects of American life. There should be no careers that we should think are off-limits to us or to others.”
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