Shirley Ann Jackson earned her place in the history books early on, often being the first Black woman to reach a particular milestone in her field. In the nearly fifty years since she graduated from MIT with a Ph.D. in Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics, she has held senior leadership roles in academia, government, industry, and research. Today she's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's 18th President, the first Black or woman President at RPI, and the first African American woman to lead a top-ranked research university.
As a young child, Shirley's mother would often read to her. One of the most notable books was the biography of African-American scientist and mathematician Benjamin Banneker. With her parents' encouragement of her interests in math and science, she excelled in school.
In 1964, Ms. Jackson graduated as the valedictorian of her public high school in Washington, D.C. Just months later; she began her undergraduate studies at MIT. Upon arrival at MIT, Shirley quickly realized that she was one of few Black students. Her fellow students were not welcoming, even telling her to "go away" when she approached them in class.
Due to her ostracization, her undergraduate studies were isolating, and she didn't feel particularly welcomed. Yet, despite being accepted into doctoral programs at Brown, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, she chose to continue her doctoral work at MIT. Part of her motivation for this decision was that she "wasn't going to give people the satisfaction of getting me to walk away." She kept her head down, focusing on her studies until something happened to make her look up. She realized that she could help change things for minority students at MIT.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Shirley Jackson would help organize a group of African-American students that would become MIT's Black Student Union. They approached MIT with their proposals for recruiting minority students and faculty, offering minority students greater financial support, and improving their lives at MIT. Later that year, MIT appointed a Task Force on Educational Opportunity to achieve those goals set out by the Black Student Union and asked Jackson to serve on it.
Shirley traveled around the country that fall in an attempt to help MIT recruit minority students. The average Black freshman enrollment at MIT had held steady each year at around three to five students. However, in 1969, one year after Ms. Jackson and the task force began their initiative, 57 Black freshmen enrolled. Shirley then created a summer program, which she also taught at, called Project Interphase, which helped acclimate incoming minority freshmen to MIT. The program, now called Interphase EDGE, is still being offered, and to date, more than 2,000 students have taken part.
Shirley Jackson officially became Dr. Jackson in 1973. Her thesis, "The Study of a Multiperipheral Model with Continued Cross-Channel Unitarity," with direction from James Young, the first African-American tenured full professor in the physics department at MIT, was published in Annals of Physics in 1975.
Dr. Jackson would then do her postdoc at Fermilab, the national lab specializing in high-energy particle physics. In 1976, she accepted a position at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, where she switched research areas and focused on the electronic properties of two-dimensional condensed matter systems. Her research at Bell enabled breakthroughs in the development of the portable fax, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and caller ID, and call waiting.
Her career has been a fascinating one, and we do encourage you to read more about her and her work, as we can't unpack the breadth of her impact here. Learn more about Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson's career.
"Do not let others define who you are. Define yourself. Do not be limited by what others expect of you, but reach confidently for the stars."
The following is only a partial list of the professional recognitions that Shirley Ann Jackson has received over her illustrious career that has spanned nearly 50 years. In addition to her PhD from MIT, she has received an additional 55 honorary doctorates.
Outstanding Young Women of America — 1976 Outstanding Young Women of America — 1981 Candace Award for Technology — National Coalition of 100 Black Women 1982 Thomas Alva Edison Award — New Jersey Governor's Award in Science 1993
National Women's Hall of Fame — 1998
Women in Technology International Foundation Hall of Fame — 2000 Golden Torch Award for Lifetime Achievement in Academia — National Society of Black Engineers 2000 100 Women of Excellence —Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce & Women's Business Council 2000 Immortal Award —15th Annual Black History Makers Awards 2000 Black Engineer of the Year — US Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine 2000 Richtmyer Memorial Award — American Association of Physics Teachers 2001 Top 50 women in Science — Discover 2002 50 of The Most Inspiring African Americans — Essence 2002 "50 R&D stars to watch" — Industry Week magazine 2002 Community Citizenship Award — Troy Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (TRIP) 2006 President's Award — American Society of Mechanical Engineers 2006 Vannevar Bush Award — National Science Board 2007 Impact Award — AARP The Magazine 2007 Golden Plate Award — American Academy of Achievement 2007
Women in Science Role Model Award — L'Oreal USA 2008 Ralph Coats Roe Medal — American Society of Mechanical Engineers 2008 Bouchet Leadership Award Medal — Yale University 2009 Dr. John Hope Franklin Award — Diverse Issues in Higher Education Magazine 2009 Women of Power Legacy Award — Black Enterprise Magazine 2010 Philip Hauge Abelson Award — American Association for the Advancement of Science 2011 America Competes Award — U.S. Council on Competitiveness 2012 New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame (NJIHoF) Inductee — 2013 Trustees Award — NJIHoF 2013
STEM Leadership Hall of Fame — U.S. News 2014 Tech Valley Business Hall of Fame Inductee —2014 Alice H. Parker Award — New Jersey Chamber of Commerce 2015 National Medal of Science for Physical Science — 2016 W.E.B. DuBois Medal—Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University 2018 Burton Award — Forum on Physics Society 2019
Association for Women in Science (AWIS) Fellow
American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow (AAAS)
Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering (FREng)
American Physical Society Fellow
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology — 1985
President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology — 2009 National Academy of Sciences National Academy of Engineering American Philosophical Society Council on Foreign Relations
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) National Science Foundation American Association for the Advancement of Science (President & Chair) U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) (Chair)
Jackson's vocal style is commanding, no-nonsense, but approachable. It is trustworthy and patient. Whether she is speaking to her students and alumni at RPI or her capacity as a government advisor, her calm and confident speaking style earns her all attention. It isn't just the words she is saying but also the message her voice is sending subliminally, making her voice so powerful. We love that!
Whether using voice actors or digital voices, organizations are thinking more about the power of voice in their communications and content. We help those organizations imagine the possibilities of a world in which digital voice matched the world of human voice. Digital voice can be as dynamic, expressive, and representative of the world we hear around us.
— learn more about AI-Voice.