Trailblazing Women You May Not Know (But Should): Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson
Each week, the Lean In tumblr will spotlight women who made a lasting mark on the world — yet didn’t always end up in the history books. This week we celebrate Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, the first black woman to earn a doctorate in nuclear physics from MIT.
When she was four years old, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson told her mom she already knew what people would call her some day: "Shirley the Great." She was right.
Dr. Jackson was born in Washington D.C. in 1946 and quickly developed a passion for science. Her father encouraged her interest, telling her to "aim for the stars so that you can reach the treetops and at least you’ll get off the ground."
In 1964 Dr. Jackson started her freshman year at MIT, where she was one of fewer than twenty African American students and the only one studying theoretical physics. She later told Science Magazine that men weren’t the only ones who made her feel alienated. “The irony is that the white girls weren’t particularly working with me, either,” Dr. Jackson said. ”I had to work alone and I went through a down period. But you have to decide you will persist in what you’re doing and that you won’t let people beat you down.” She didn’t. She soon became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT in nuclear physics.
Dr. Jackson made history again in 1995 when President Clinton appointed her to serve as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Committee. She was both the first woman and the first African American to hold the job. More firsts followed: she became the first black woman elected to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the first black woman to lead a top-50 national research university, and the first to receive the Vannevar Bush award. Today, she is President of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and serves on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In 2005, Time Magazine celebrated Dr. Jackson as “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science.” The National Science Board has called her "a national treasure." She is, just as she predicted as a little girl, Shirley the Great.
Image source: Library of Congress