Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson: 2019 Recipient of the Burton Award

Ruth Howes, Ball Sate University

As most members of the Forum on Physics Society already know, the recipient of this year’s Burton Award “For distinguished application of her knowledge of physics to strengthen the use of nuclear power as Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, advance education as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and render broad service to government, charitable and corporate boards and committees” is Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson.

Dr. Jackson has a history of firsts as an African American woman physicist (only the second woman of any race to earn a Ph.D. from M.I.T. where her dissertation was in theoretical particle physics), first woman and first African American to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and as the eighteenth president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the first woman and the first African American to lead a major research university as well as the first female African American to receive the National Medal of Science. In addition to her list of firsts, Dr. Jackson has served the science community as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Society of Black Physicists and as a member and vice chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Throughout her career she has worked to increase the numbers of women and African Americans in all STEM fields and physics in particular. She has received numerous awards including the Richtmeyer Memorial Award from the American Association of Physics Teachers as well as numerous honorary doctorates. It is difficult to imagine a better-qualified candidate for the Burton Award.

Shirley Ann Jackson was born August 5, 1946 in Washington, DC to Beatrice and George Jackson (American Men and Women in Science). Her father started working in his senior year in high school following his father’s death and then served in a segregated unit during World War II where he saw action in Normandy where he won a bronze star for figuring out how to repair the landing vehicles that carried troops ashore on D-Day thanks to his mechanical ability. He allowed the young Shirley to spend time with him on his projects and strongly encourage her education particularly in science. Her mother taught all her children, including Shirley, to read before they entered kindergarten. Both parents obviously encouraged education. Her father used to tell her, “Aim for the stars so you can reach the treetops.” She used to do experiments beginning with the circadian rhythms of the bees in her backyard and she exhibited leadership in organizing the neighborhood children to sweep the sidewalks before the city swept the streets. In 1954, the Brown vs. the Board of Education opened nearby public schools to African American children so Jackson was able to take an accelerated program beginning in sixth grade. She graduated as valedictorian of Roosevelt Senior High School in 1964. (Bryant)

The following fall, Shirley Jackson enrolled at MIT in order to pursue her interest in science, one of two African American women students at the Institute. She lived in a new women’s freshman dorm. She remembers that her classmates did not welcome her since at that time there were fewer than 20 African American students enrolled at MIT (O’Connell). As she worked on her first problem set in physics, she noticed the other women in her class working their problem sets in one of the common areas of the dorm. She opened her room door and walked to the group telling them that she had already worked half of the problems and asked to join the group which told her to “Go away!” She went back to her room and cried before she began solitary work and finished the assignment. She needed that trust in herself and her work ethic because other students refused to sit next to her in class or in the dining hall (Schaffer). In order to reduce her isolation, Jackson decided to become involved with the Boston community. She volunteered in the Boston City Hospital pediatric ward which treated children of all races. She particularly remembers one blond boy without a face who was awaiting plastic surgery whom she would visit at the start of each shift simply to hold and comfort him. He in turn taught her that all people have crosses to bear and led her to count her advantages. She also joined the national African-American sorority Delta Sigma Theta, Iota Chapter, which was both a social group of college women in New England and a service organization that tutored math at the Roxbury YMCA. Having found a peer group, Jackson took advantage of academics at MIT such as the Professor Anthony French who interested her in physics during his introductory course. She started research on condensed matter physics in MIT’s well equipped laboratory (O’Connell 27-38) and graduated as a theoretical physicist in 1968, having written a thesis on solid state physics (Wikipedia). In her senior year, she applied to several top-ranked physics departments where she was accepted because of her strong academic record (O’Connell 38-39).

The death of a personal hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. forced her decision to do graduate work in physics at MIT although it would entail a switch to high energy physics since she felt she could make the Institute more welcoming to African-American students. Over the course of her graduate work, she actively pursued this dream, personally mentoring many African-American students, serving on university-wide task force to foster a diverse student body, founding the Black Students Union and directing a six-week summer program to prepare diverse students for the academic demands of MIT. In the first year of recruitment, the number of African-American students rose from 5 to 57. She personally befriended a number of students including future astronaut Ronald McNair (O’Connell 41-53) and current vice president of the APS Sylvester “Jim” Gates who remember Jackson’s leadership and friendship at MIT. Gates recalls her saying, “The important thing is to concentrate on your academic performance and don’t get distracted.” (Schaffer)

In 1973, Jackson became the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in any field at MIT with a dissertation describing a new way to model collisions (Schaffer). She then accepted a postdoc at Fermilab followed by a fellowship at CERN. She was there when Sam Ting, whom she had known as a professor at MIT, and his group discovered the charm quark. After her stint at CERN, Jackson returned to her position at Fermilab. At an APS Meeting in Atlanta Jackson had a dinner meeting with Maurice Rice, then Head of AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey, at which she spoke about her work in physics and was invited to give a colloquium at the Lab. She was offered a one-year position there in 1976 and her hard work and talent then made her a full member of the staff of the theoretical physics division (O’Connell 64-89). In 1975, Jackson became a member of the MIT Corporation where she is now a life member (Schaffer).

She switched the focus of her research to the properties of two-dimensional condensed matter systems. Jackson’s work on the theory of electrons at the interfaces of layered crystal and density waves would later become important in the theory of high temperature superconductors (Schaffer). About a month after starting at Bell Labs she met Morris A. Washington, a postdoctoral research fellow with a Ph.D. in experimental physics from NYU in 1976, who became a member of the technical staff at Bell Labs in1978 (Dept. of Physics RPI). They married in 1979 and their son, Alan, was born in 1981 and Jackson stayed home with him for three months and then the Washingtons took joint responsibility for his care (O’Connell 74-75, 96). Alan Washington graduated from Dartmouth College with a BA and then earned a M.S. in Real Estate Development from NYU. He is currently Head of Real Estate Development for Success Academy Charter Schools which operates 42 schools serving 14,000 students in the New York City boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. His projects are in the $100-180 million range (Linked-in).

In 1985, Governor Tom Kean of New Jersey invited Jackson to become a founding member of the advisory New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. The purpose of the Commission was to create partnerships between industry and the government to spur investments in research important to the state’s economy. In 1986, she was elected a Fellow of the APS and in 1990, she received the Thomas Alva Edison Science Award from New Jersey. In 1991, Jackson was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and joined the faculty of Rutgers University in Piscataway and then in New Brunswick while maintaining her research at Bell Labs as a consultant (O’Connell 76-79). In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed her as the first woman and the first African-American Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which was facing public fear of nuclear power reactors. Dr. Richard A. Meserve currently President Emeritus of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Jackson’s successor at the NRC when she resigned the chair in 1999, writes:

“Dr. Jackson served as Chairman at a difficult time in which there was significant controversy surrounding the safety of several plants (in particular Millstone and several Commonwealth Edison plants). She helped restore public and Congressional confidence that the NRC was a serious regulator committed to assuring protection of the public and the environment. She recognized that public confidence is essential for the survival of nuclear power and thus the success of the industry is highly dependent on a tough, but fair regulator. She brought the nuclear industry through a difficult period and reestablished confidence in the NRC in the Congress and the public.” (Meserve)

Dr. Meserve outlines five specific steps that Jackson took. First she advocated risk-informed, performance-based regulation. Second she advocated the sophisticated techniques of Probabilistic Risk Assessment. Third she used risk assessment to guide the inspection schedule. Fourth she used license renewal protocols to keep existing nuclear power plants in operation. Lastly she founded the International Nuclear Regulatory Association and served as its first chair.

The NRC job forced the Washington family into a commuter marriage where Morris remained in New Jersey as a single parent so Alan could finish high school while Shirley spent week days in Washington, D.C, and devoted weekends to her family, attending swim meets or water polo games frequently. The family talked every night (O’Connell 83).

In 1998, Dr. Jackson was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame; in 2001, she received awards including the Richtmeyer Memorial Lecture Award from AAPT and was the first African-American woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering (O’Connell 97).

In 1999, at the end of her second term as chair of the NRC, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) recruited her to serve as its 18th President, the first African-American Woman to lead a national research university. Her mission was to promote both first class research and diversity at RPI. In 2000, Morris Washington left his job at Bell Labs (now run by Lucent Technologies) and joined the Department of Physics, Applied Physics and Astronomy at Rensselaer (RPI) as a Clinical Professor of Practice and Associate Director of CIEEM (Center for Integrated electronics and electronic manufacture). He had earned a Master Certificate (Project Management) from George Washington University, School of Business and Public Management in 1997(Dept. of Physics RPI). With Alan at Dartmouth, the family was complete although the next few years were busy ones as Jackson raised standards for P&T at the university over objections of faculty (she would survive a no-confidence vote in 2006) and worked to raise money and recruit diverse students (Schaffer). In 2004 Jackson launched the Renaissance at Rensselaer campaign which met its goal of $1.4 billion nine months ahead of schedule in 2008. Jackson promoted programmatic efforts in computational science and engineering, biotechnology and the life sciences, nanotechnology and advanced materials, energy, the environment and smart systems, media arts, and science and technology. During her tenure as President, Rensselaer has seen a tripling of sponsored research expenditures, the hiring of 325 new tenure track faculty members, advances in curriculum, increase in scholarships, growth of undergraduate research and several improvements in student life on campus which support all students, particularity minority students (Office of the President RPI). In 2010, Rensselaer offered her a ten-year extension on her contract and she is one of the best paid university presidents in the country (Wikipedia).

These years also saw Dr. Jackson serve the scientific community in a number of positions, as the first African-American woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2001, as president of the AAAS in 2004 and later as chair of the AAAS Board of Directors(2005), as a regent of the Smithsonian as a member of OBama’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from 2009-2014, the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board from 2014-2017, Vice Chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian, University Vice Chair of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness from 2008 to 2013 (Schaffer).

Dr. Jackson has received numerous awards including 53 honorary doctorates over the years and the National Medal of Science in 2016. She is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the AAAS (Schaffer). She is also an International Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (2013), and received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1983, obviously in recognition of her work at Bell Labs. She has served on numerous committees of the NSF and the National Research Council, been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1998). She is a Trustee of the Brookings Institution and on the Board of Directors of the Hyde Collection and the Council on Foreign Relations (Wikipedia). She sits on the Board of Directors of IBM, FedEx, Medtronic, and Public Service Enterprise Group as well as the board of the World Economic Forum. From 2006-2013, she served as chair of the Board of the New York Stock Exchange (Schaffer).

In summary, it is difficult to imagine a candidate who is better qualified for the Burton Award.



American Men and Women of Science, entry on Shirley Ann Jackson, 22nd edition (2003).

Bryant, Adam (May 27, 2016) “Shirley Ann Jackson: Keep Your Eye on the North Star”. Corner Office column, business section of the New York Times, https://www.NYTimes.com/2016/05/29/business/Shirley-Ann-Jackson-keep-your-eye-on-the-north-star.html, accessed 11/24/2018.

Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “Morris A. Washington”, https://science.rpi.edu/physics, accessed 11/20/2018.

Linked In Profile for Alan Washington, accessed on 11/20/2018.

Meserve, Richard A. (July 12, 2017), Letter of Support for the Nomination of Shirley Jackson for the Burtonn Award of the Forum on Physics and Society.

O’Connell, Diane, Strong Force: The Story of Physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press (1956).

Office of the President RPI, “Biography of Shirley Ann Jackson, 18th President of Rensselar Polytechnique Institute”, https://president.rpi.edu/president-biography, accessed 11/26/2018.

Schaffer, Amanda (December 19, 2017) “The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson.” MIT News magazine, January/February 2018, Issue, http://www.technologyreview.com, accessed 11/24/2018.

Wikipedia, “Shirley Ann Jackson” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/, accessed 11/24/2018.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.