STEM trailblazer, physicist Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson retiring after 50 years

"Talent is everywhere," she said.

Video byDara Elasfar
June 30, 2022, 11:35 AM

After a remarkable career spanning nearly 50 years, STEM trailblazer, physicist and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is retiring.

In 1973, Jackson graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a doctorate in theoretical elementary particle physics, making her the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in any field from the renowned university. She was also one of the first Black women to receive a bachelor's degree from the school.

Her time at MIT set the stage for her professional life, putting her on the path to help others along the way, Jackson told ABC News. She described how the events of the last 50 years helped shape not only her work but also how to help be an example for others.

"I knew when I looked around, there weren't very many African Americans when I was an undergrad, and especially as a graduate," Jackson said. She added that doing the best work she could in her own career could help guide others.

PHOTO: Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson presents research at AT&T Bell Laboratories in an undated photo.
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson presents research at AT&T Bell Laboratories in an undated photo.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Jackson said she looks back on her life through "windows in time" marked by historical events that led her to create some of her own.

Jackson recalls feeling close to the politics that so greatly influenced her childhood. Though she lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, she could not attend the segregated school closest to her home. The landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, however, changed that.

"It was an interesting experience," she said. "One could say it was more competitive because it was a wider range of people with whom one competed."

Just a few years later, the launch of Sputnik 1 intensified the Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

"That made the public policymakers and politicians nervous. And so the curriculum in the public schools was changed to give much more emphasis to science and math," Jackson said of how she was further immersed in the field.

Her focus secured her two scholarships to MIT. Though she initially thought she'd pursue math, Latin and Greek, she soon became interested in quantum mechanics, where she excelled despite the social challenges she faced.

"At MIT, it wasn't always friendly," she said. "If I sat at a table alone, no one else would come and join many times, but if I went and joined the table, then people would suddenly be finishing up their meals…and so in that sense, it was very isolating."

PHOTO: Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is pictured in an undated portrait.
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is pictured in an undated portrait.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Undeterred, she found community in the regional chapter of the historically Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta. She would go on to serve as president of the sorority for two years. She said it taught her "resilience, inventiveness, resourcefulness" while giving her an outlet since MIT did not have its own chapter at the time.

Near the end of her senior year, in April 1968, Jackson was driving back from a graduate school visit when she learned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in Memphis. Hearing the news of his death made her think about how she could make a difference.

"I thought about how quiet I've been as an undergrad. And I felt there was something that I needed to do and should do at MIT to get more African American and minority students in and to become more hospitable for such students. And so in the end, I decided to stay at MIT," Jackson told ABC News.

Taking action, Jackson co-founded the school's Black Student Union, which was instrumental in starting Project Interphase, which is a summer program designed to help transition new students into life at MIT. The program, which still runs today, evolved from a task force on educational opportunities that sought to expand the applicant pool and promote diversity at MIT.

After years of making strides in her postdoctoral work at research and development company Bell Labs, and particle physics laboratory Fermilab, Jackson was appointed Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission by President Bill Clinton in 1995.

She returned to academia in 1999 as the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's 18th president to create an institution with the "global reach and global impact" that it has today. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed Jackson as co-chair of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board.

PHOTO: Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson attemds her RPI Presidential Inauguration in 1999.
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson attemds her RPI Presidential Inauguration in 1999.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

From notable firsts to nuclear frameworks, Jackson has left her mark on the world. In reflecting on what it all has meant for her, she told ABC News that what she holds close is her father's memory and the impact her work has had on others.

"It's about being able to walk so you can carry someone else," she said. "The more influential the positions I've had and the more powerful they've become, the more I've been able to help people develop open doors and help people step through. That is what's meaningful to me."

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