PRISM Magazine On-Line  - November 1999
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Her Brilliant Career

by Joannie M. Schrof

The words "first black woman" have been used to describe Shirley Ann Jackson for so long that her name seems incomplete without them. She was the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT, the first black woman in the country to earn a physics doctorate, and she was both the first African American and the first woman to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Now, she is the first black woman to head any national science and engineering research university, let alone one of the nation's oldest, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The three simple words that today convey such honor upon Jackson at first followed her like a curse. Arriving on MIT's campus with an eager young mind in the fall of 1964, Jackson immediately suffered vicious treatment from those not interested in seeing someone of her race and gender be the first to achieve anything. Ostracized by students who would not even sit next to her in class, Jackson was forced to do all the work in isolation that everyone else did in supportive study groups. One faculty member told her to go "learn a trade." And while simply trying to walk down the street, Jackson was shouted at and spat upon. Once, in downtown Boston, someone even shot at her.

Turnaround Artist

The suffering Jackson endured would have caused many others to retreat into an angry obscurity, but in a typically thoughtful manner, she made a key decision that has served her well, echoing through the rest of her life. She realized that since she was going to stand out so much, and her actions would be well remembered, she could turn the scrutiny to her advantage and make an indelible impression of excellence. Relying on a strong internal compass from that moment on, Jackson held herself to the highest standards of both intellect and decency, and soon the world took notice. Before long, the same students who had shunned Jackson were seeking her out for help and mentoring, and she obliged.

When Jackson gained her Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics in 1973, she was quickly scooped up for prestigious high-level research posts. She focused on the properties of atomic particles, with particular emphasis on semiconductor-related matters, at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Lab, the Aspen Center for Physics, and the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. In 1976, she joined Bell Labs in New Jersey, where she met her husband, fellow physicist Morris Washington.

In 1991, Jackson joined the Rutgers University faculty, and by 1995, she had gained such a reputation as a stellar scientist, manager, and educator that President Clinton appointed her to take the helm of the NRC. Then, last year, Jackson was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY, to be honored for her work as a distinguished scientist, effective teacher, and driver of important public policies. Her name rests alongside such enormous figures as Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth.

 
Despite the enormous complexity and diversity of Jackson's endeavors, she says that in some ways she has merely continued with the same basic path she began as a child. Growing up in the Sputnik-inspired years of the late 1950's and early 1960's, when the race for space was in full force, a young Jackson came to see the world around her as "full of secrets" and scientific experimentation as the key to unlocking those secrets. For years, she collected bees and kept them under her family's back porch, making painstaking records of their behaviors as she adjusted variables like heat, light, and diet. "It was like reading a great mystery novel," she recalls.

Her father, a postal supervisor, and her mother, a social worker, encouraged Jackson to pursue her passions ("You have to aim for the stars to reach the treetops," her father would quip), and her siblings, two sisters and a brother, all recognized her natural talents for leadership. But it was the assistant principal for boys at Washington D.C.'s Roosevelt High School who steered the valedictorian toward MIT. Today, even at such lofty posts as heading the NRC, Jackson says she is essentially doing the same thing she did way back when with the bees: studying interactions in the environment around her, making keen observations, and taking constructive action based on what she learned.

But Jackson is as proud of her public service contributions as she is of any scientific achievement. A strong sense of obligation to others has always been part of her internal makeup. Amidst her own struggles for fair treatment at MIT, Jackson founded the Black Student Union, and devoted herself to increasing the number of black students who applied and were accepted to the school. She has long served on MIT's Board of Trustees, and during her two decades in New Jersey, Jackson held key roles in state task forces aimed at promoting science and technology, and at improving science education.

Problem Solver Extraordinaire

Her intelligence makes her compassion all the more effective. MIT faculty members present during Jackson's student days remember that she never lost her temper, always arguing elegantly and calmly for the merits of changing racist policies. And Jackson's evenhanded treatment of explosive nuclear regulatory issues has earned her respect from public safety watchdogs and members of the nuclear industry alike; she is credited with wisely resolving some of the toughest dilemmas the NRC has ever faced.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is banking on Jackson's problem-solving ability to take the 175-year-old university to a new level of prominence. The school has enjoyed a long tradition of excellence, but recently has been plagued by troubles, such as the resignation of former president Byron Pipes after a vote of no confidence from the faculty senate, and several key positions sitting vacant in the wake of financial problems.

School officials have searched since last spring for the right person to put the school back on track. After considering hundreds of candidates, the 34-member panel unanimously chose Shirley Jackson, partly because she has recent practice in turning the fate of large institutions around. Jackson entered the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission at one of the lowest points in its history, with a wary public distrustful that the agency charged with overseeing the safe use of nuclear materials might be too cozy with the industry. Almost single-handedly, say colleagues, Jackson restored faith in the NRC's integrity, toughening safety standards and ridding the agency of commissioners who were too lenient.

Jackson's acceptance of the presidency has invigorated the RPI campus, nestled on a hill above the Hudson River and the small city of Troy, New York. Faculty members say that she is bringing more visibility to the school than it has had in decades just by stepping foot onto campus, and officials hope that Jackson's fame and worldwide connections can help make the letters RPI as recognizable around the globe as the letters MIT. It's a mammoth endeavor, but Jackson relishes the opportunity. "I tend not to look back, but to be focused on new challenges," she says.

 

Taking RPI Global

To make RPI a truly global university, Jackson has decided she will need to make fundraising a top priority. Right now, RPI's $500 million endowment seems tiny next to those of MIT and Stanford, both several billion dollars strong. She is hiring a vice president for research, naming an engineering dean, and working through her Rolodex to form partnerships with institutions around the planet. And because Jackson believes that global recognition starts with strong local ties, she has already put heads together with Troy's mayor, Mark Pattison, about ways the university and the city can work together. To symbolically emphasize the links between campus and community, Jackson kicked off the school year with a parade of students and faculty down the hill and through Troy's streets.

Of course, along with promoting RPI, Jackson is keenly aware of the need to promote women and minorities in the sciences. In the years since Jackson broke barriers, too few have followed. In recent years, only between 2 and 3 percent of all science and engineering doctoral degrees have been awarded to African Americans, according to the National Science Foundation. And on Jackson's new campus, just one quarter of students are women, only 4 percent are black, and there are just 4 black faculty members.

If Jackson succeeds in promoting women and minorities in the sciences, it will be one of her most enduring legacies. She plans to start with outreach efforts to elementary schools. "You can't even begin to talk about theoretical physics until you are comfortable with calculus," she points out. "And you can't begin to think about calculus unless before that you've mastered algebra, and before that multiplication, and before that adding and subtracting." And Jackson strongly believes that women need their own "good old boys" network. Women must be "true friends" to one another, she says, taking time to assist and encourage one another in their efforts.

Friends say that Jackson has been a living embodiment of this principle from her youngest days, tutoring fellow women and minority students in their studies even during the busiest times of preparing her doctoral dissertation. That's because, says Jackson, being a trailblazer is only a good thing if one does not allow "high weeds" to grow back because no one was inspired to follow. Jackson won't be satisfied to go down in history as the "first black woman" of anything, she says, unless the familiar phrase is followed by two more words: "of many."

 

Joannie M. Schrof is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report


Crack in the Glass Ceiling

A wage gap for women? Not in engineering, according to a new study by Abt Associates for the National Science Foundation.

Researchers found that salaries of female and male engineers with similar years of experience are virtually the same. Women in engineering earn 97 cents for every dollar men earn when time in the workforce is taken into account. The results are based on an analysis of 1995 NSF survey data of approximately 1.6 million college graduates in 16 engineering occupations.

The three-cent wage gap is in stark contrast to past studies that have shown that women in all professions typically earn 72 cents to every dollar earned by men.

K.G