Shirley Ann Jackson

Theoretical Physics - President of Rensselaer

About Shirley

Interesting Highlights

  • 1st African American woman to earn a PhD from MIT
  • 1st African-American woman to lead a national research university (Rensselaer)
  • Advocate for women and minorities to get a science education

Advice for Students

  • You can be a changemaker
  • Dedicate yourself to your passion
  • Build connections

Why Physics?

Going to the White School
Shirley was still a child when the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) Supreme Court decision opened up public schools to all students without regards to race or ethnicity. Such a monumental decision gave many students like Shirley the chance to participate in the advanced programs in math and science.

More importantly, the opportunity to take advanced courses in math and science gave her “a strong background coming out of high school for studying… physics.”

Sputnik and the Space Race
The launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite into space made nations all over the world realize the value of science and mathematics because it sparked a “science-based defense race.” This race allowed for more investments in public education with most investments going towards science and math.

With more investments and more concern to educate young students in science and math, Shirley got the chance to embrace her love for science and to continue exploring her fascination with nature.

Bumblebee Questions
Shirley was always curious about the world around her and her initial interest in science began with observing the bumblebees in her backyard. She would catch them in jars and observe their interactions. Shirley’s backyard observations sparked the beginning of her journey to being a scientist.

Because she was one of the few African-Americans at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the time, college was a lonely place. It was difficult to find many classmates who were willing to work with her or even sit with her. But, Shirley’s love for physics and her fascination with nature and the world gave her the motivation to continue pursuing her goals in science and in education.

Using Physics

Research, Teaching, Advising
Scientist, educator, and role model. Shirley Ann Jackson has definitely walked many different paths of science.

After Shirley got her chance to learn more about science and to be surrounded by students with the same goal, she moved on to research and teaching. In addition, to advising students, she serves on the Board of Directors for many different corporations such as New York Stock Exchange, IBM, FedEx, Marathon Oil, and the Smithsonian Institution.  Her accomplishments are numerous and extensive. But, recently she has focused more on changing education and getting more students to study science and math.

Creating Opportunities for Young Scientists
As the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Shirley wants to expand science and make it clear that all the areas of science intersect. More importantly, Shirley insists that a “quiet crisis” is growing in America. This quiet crisis is one where her generation of scientists will soon retire and currently, there is not near enough scientists to replace the amount of scientists that will be leaving the industry.

Because of her concerns, Shirley is constantly voicing her concerns for more students, especially women and minorities, to break into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. With the amount of scientists that will soon be retiring, there is a huge need for more scientists to replace those retiring in order for innovation in America to continue.

Shirley was given the opportunity to expand her own interest and knowledge in physics. Now, she wants others to hear the calling of science. Shirley has expanded the STEM academics at Rensselaer and brought in millions of research funding. Not only has she changed Rensselaer, but she has also shown America and the rest of the world the importance of educating young scientists and opening up more opportunities for innovation.
Gray arrow  Shirley Ann Jackson Talking about Science and Students on Big Think

Advice for Students

Success Comes From Dedication
When Shirley was an undergraduate, she sometimes had to deal with peers who didn’t want to work with her and she was often left in social isolation because she was getting an education during a time of heavy discrimination. However, she continued to pursue her education and was determined to build her knowledge in science during these challenging times. Her own success has come from years of hard work and dedication to building her own knowledge in physics and to expanding STEM education.
Building Valuable Connections
The power to achieve your goals comes from your dedication, but it also comes from connections. Shirley explains that connections give you a bigger network of opportunity. She stresses that a bigger network of opportunity will give you a higher chance of reaching success and achieving your goals.