We Recognize Her: Dr. Shirley Jackson, The First Black Woman To Lead A Top-Ranked Research University

Dr. Shirley Jackson has become a pillar in science and is often considered to be a “superwoman of science.”

Dr. Jackson is the first African-American woman to get her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is also the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the oldest technological research university in the United States. 

Dr. Jackson’s love for education came at an early age with the encouragement of her parents. While in high school, she attended an accelerated math and science program and would go on to graduate as her class valedictorian in 1964. 

While attending MIT, Jackson described her experience as “pretty isolating”  She went on to graduate in 1968 and for years later she would earn her doctorate degree. Her mentee, Sylvester Gates, said about her, “It’s nearly impossible to understand the full sweep of Shirley’s career, from academia to government to business.” 

He continued, “She has been extraordinarily successful in all of those realms. She also has a magnificent ability to understand organizations and how effective within them… She has always been the cool head in the group.” 

After receiving her Ph.D., Jackson had different positions throughout the 1970s. She worked at Fermilab in Illinois as a research associate, she worked as a visiting scientist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland and would later be at Bell Labs a part of the theoretical-physics research department. 

During the 80s and 90s, Jackson would get involved in public policy and would later teach theoretical physics at Rutgers University. In 1995, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton as the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

While at the NRC, she implemented regulations that she came up with for assessing risk at the country’s nuclear power plants to study the likelihood of potential and various problems. 

In 1999, she would become the 18th president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, making her the first African- American to hold that position. She is currently still working there. She opened up about the position that she holds and said, “I understood universities from the point of view of oversight and from the point of view of the faculty, in terms of how to organize research.”