Shirley Jackson (physicist)

Shirley Ann Jackson (born August 5, 1946) is an American physicist, and the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She received her Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973, only the second African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics in the United States.

Early life and schooling

Jackson was born in Washington, D.C.. Her parents, Beatrice and George Jackson, strongly valued education and encouraged her in school. Her father spurred on her interest in science by helping her with projects for her science classes. At Roosevelt High School, Jackson attended accelerated programs in both math and science, and she graduated in 1964 as valedictorian.

Jackson began classes at MIT in 1964, one of fewer than twenty African American students and the only one studying theoretical physics. While a student she did volunteer work at Boston City Hospital and tutored students at the Roxbury YMCA. She earned her bachelor's degree in 1968, writing her thesis on solid-state physics.

Although accepted at Brown University, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago, Jackson elected to stay at MIT for her doctoral work, in part to encourage more African American students to attend the institution. She worked on elementary particle theory for her Ph.D., which she completed in 1973, the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate degree from MIT. Her research was directed by James Young.


As a postdoctoral researcher of subatomic particles during the 1970s, Jackson studied and conducted research at a number of prestigious physics laboratories in both the United States and Europe. Her first position was as research associate at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois (known as Fermilab) where she studied hadrons. In 1974 she became visiting scientist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. There she explored theories of strongly interacting elementary particles. In 1976 and 1977, she both lectured in physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and became a visiting scientist at the Aspen Center for Physics.

At one time her research focused on [Landau-Ginsburg] theories of charge density waves in layered compounds, and has studied two-dimensional Yang-Mills gauge theories and neutrino reactions.

Jackson has described her interests:

"I am interested in the electronic, optical, magnetic, and transport properties of novel semiconductor systems. Of special interest are the behavior of magnetic polarons in semimagnetic and dilute magnetic semiconductors, and the optical response properties of semiconductor quantum-wells and superlattices. My interests also include quantum dots, mesoscopic systems, and the role of antiferromagnetic fluctuations in correlated 2D electron systems.

Jackson's area of interest in physics is the study of the subatomic particles found within atoms, the tiny units of which all matter is made. Subatomic particles, which are usually very unstable and short-lived, can be studied in several ways. One method is using a particle accelerator, a device in which nuclei are accelerated to high speeds and then collided with a target to separate them into subatomic particles. Another way of studying them is by detecting their movements using certain kinds of nonconducting solids. When some solids are exposed to high-energy particles, the crystal lattice structure of the atoms is distorted, and this phenomenon leaves marks or tracks that can be seen with an electron microscope. Photographs of the tracks are then enhanced, and by examining these photographs physicists like Jackson can make predictions about what kinds of particles have caused the marks.

Jackson joined the Theoretical Physics Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1976, examining the fundamental properties of various materials. In 1978, Dr. Jackson became part of the Scattering and Low Energy Physics Research Department, and in 1988 she moved to the Solid State and Quantum Physics Research Department. At Bell Labs, Dr. Jackson researched the optical and electronic properties of two-dimensional and quasi-two dimensional systems. In her research, Dr. Jackson has made contributions to the knowledge of charged density waves in layered compounds, polaronic aspects of electrons in the surface of liquid helium films, and optical and electronic properties of semiconductor strained-layer superlattices. On these topics and others she has prepared or collaborated on over 100 scientific articles.

Jackson was faculty at Rutgers University in Piscataway and New Brunswick, New Jersey from 1991 to 1995, in addition to continuing to consult with Bell Labs on semiconductor theory. Her research during this time focused on the electronic and optical properties of two-dimensional systems.

In 1995, President Clinton appointed Jackson to serve as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), becoming the first woman and first African American to hold that position. At the NRC, she had "ultimate authority for all NRC functions pertaining to an emergency involving an NRC licensee."

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

On July 1, 1999, Jackson became the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She was the first woman and first African-American to hold this position. Jackson is leading a strategic initiative called The Rensselaer Plan and much progress has been made towards achieving the Plan's goals. She enjoys the ongoing support of the RPI Board of Trustees. However, on April 26, 2006, the faculty of RPI, (including a number of retirees) voted 155 to 149 against a vote of no-confidence in Jackson. In the Fall of 2007, the Rensselaer Board of Trustees suspended the faculty senate prompting a strong reaction from the Rensselaer community that resulted in various protests including a "teach in.

Jackson has overseen a large capital improvement campaign, such as the construction of an Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center and the East Campus Athletic Village.

Honors and distinctions

Jackson has received many fellowships, including the Martin Marietta Aircraft Company Scholarship and Fellowship, the Prince Hall Masons Scholarship, the National Science Foundation Traineeship, and a Ford Foundation Advanced Study Fellowship.

She has been elected to numerous special societies, including the American Physical Society and American Philosophical Society.

Her achievements in science and education have been recognized with multiple awards, including the CIBA-GEIGY Exceptional Black Scientist Award. In the early 1990s, Governor James Florio awarded her the Thomas Alva Edison Science Award for her contributions to physics and for the promotion of science. She has also received many honorary doctorate degrees.

She was inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998 for "her significant contributions as a distinguished scientist and advocate for education, science, and public policy". More recently she was named one of the 50 Most Important Women in Science by Discover magazine.

Jackson has also been active in professional associations and in serving society through public scientific commissions. In 1985, Governor Thomas Kean appointed her to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. She is an active voice in numerous committees of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the National Science Foundation. Her continuing aim has been to preserve and strengthen the U.S. national capacity for innovation by increasing support for basic research in science and engineering, and by continuing to attract talent from abroad, while expanding the domestic talent pool by attracting women and members of under-represented groups into careers in science. In 2004 she became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and chaired the AAAS board in 2005.

In spring 2007 she was awarded the Vannevar Bush Award for "a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy.

In 2008 Shirley Ann Jackson became the University Vice Chairman of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness.

Boards of directors

Jackson serves on the boards of directors of many organizations :


Shirley Jackson is married to Dr. Morris A. Washington, a physics professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and has one son, Alan, a Dartmouth College alumnus.

External links


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