Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson’s Awesome Achievements for African Americans, Academia and America

The goal of the Louisville Political Review is to expand the perception of politics and exemplify that politics is not only reserved for billionaires and corporations, but for everyone. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who better exemplifies public service and the use of one’s expertise for the betterment of our nation than Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D. a descendant of enslaved people who became  the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commision (NRC) and President of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of the nation’s leading research institutions. With a Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics, Dr. Jackson is a role model deserving of recognition.

Dr. Jackson’s intertwining with history and policy started early. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided the Brown v. Board of Education case, desegregating public schools. She reflected upon how as a young child going into the third grade this court decision allowed her to access resources that were formerly withheld from Black students and expanded her horizons. 

She made history again in college when she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as one of two Black women enrolled. In her interview with MIT’s Infinite History Project she recalled often being dismissed or mistaken for the other student despite the fact that they didn’t look similar. It was at MIT where she started her social justice activism. As the National Women’s Hall of Fame recounted, “she organized MIT’s Black Student Union and worked to increase the number of Black students entering MIT. After only one year, the number entering rose from 2 to 57.”

Despite the adversity, both Dr. Jackson and her peer became the first Black women to receive bachelor’s degrees from MIT. Dr. Jackson went on to become the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. from MIT and was only the second Black woman in America to earn a doctorate degree in physics. 

After graduating she put her knowledge of theoretical physics to work at AT&T Bell Laboratories where she helped develop materials for the semiconductor industry from 1976 to 1995. At the same time she spent time working at prestigious research facilities like the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), near Geneva, Switzerland.

Needless to say, Dr. Jackson is a blisteringly intelligent woman, so it makes sense that in 1995 President Bill Clinton appointed her Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). This is really where her prowess in science began to benefit policy-making as the NRC plays an extremely important role in protecting public health and safety by supervising all non-military usage of radioactive materials in the U.S. such as commercial nuclear power plants, nuclear medicine, along with the transportation, storage, and disposal of nuclear waste. Anything nuclear has to go through and be supervised by the NRC. 

As Chairman, she “introduced risk-informed, performance-based regulation to the NRC,” which was so successful that herstrategy has changed the way other nations deal with nuclear regulation. She also masterminded the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA) and was elected as the group’s chairman in May 1997. This group is made up of the most senior nuclear regulatory officials from Canada, France, Japan, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The INRA gives countries a place to discuss, collaborate, and offer assistance on matters of nuclear safety. This is another prime example of Dr. Jackson stepping up to spearhead international policymaking aided by her background in STEM. 

She became the 18th President of the renowned Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on July 1, 1999–a position which she held until July 2022. There she oversaw more than $1 Billion in philanthropic donations. In 2018, she was awarded the W.E.B. DuBois medal from the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University that is given out for significant contributions to African and African American history and culture. She also holds a whopping 53 honorary doctoral degrees to put her success in perspective. 

Despite her seemingly infinite knowledge of theoretical physics and achievements in the realm of public policy there was a topic she remained unaware of: her ancestry. In 2020, on academic Henry Louis Gates Jr’s PBS show “Finding your Roots,” she was finally shown estate records from 1839 that listed her enslaved ancestors next to the prices they were valued at. In that incredibly emotional experience she was left nearly speechless saying, “well you know, it’s important to know where they were.” 

This sentiment of discovery and reflection is one that is important to explore and examine during this series on Black history. Everyone deserves the right to know their heritage and where they came from. It can be a source of pride, in order to understand family medical history, or just to feel closer to the past. Unfortunately, many people’s pasts are obscured or lost. It is my hope that by dedicating time and resources to making sure those stories get rediscovered and returned to whom they were stolen from we can inspire those who see them to become leaders and innovators like Dr. Jackson.

Dr. Jackson’s historic life and career is a crucial example of success not only for African Americans and women looking to get into STEM, but also a vital guide to how a career in science can be used to shape policy and increase representation in our government. Dr. Jackson’s representation is not only inspiring, but vitaly important to the success of future generations. A study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows that having positive role models who belong to minority or underrepresented groups help motivate STEM students from those underrepresented groups, but also has the incredible effect of motivating students outside of those groups as well. Having role models that young people can relate to and see themselves in is an important aspect of healthy development. In summary, exemplifying the accomplishments of Black women like Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson benefits not only young Black women looking to get into STEM but all people looking to make the world a safer and smarter place and especially those striving toward a more perfect union.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s