Shirley Ann Jackson
Paving Many New Paths All at Once
Shirley Ann Jackson doesn't back down from a challenge that gets in the way of her effort to achieve a goal. It is this attitude that has resulted in her being labeled 'the first' to do something a seemingly endless number of times. She was the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the first black female American to earn a physics doctorate, the first black woman to be the president of a national science and engineering institute, and many other firsts. But what it took to get her to where she is today was not just demonstrating her abilities, but overcoming the challenge of all those people who wanted to see her fail.

Born on August 5th, 1946 in Washington DC, Shirley Ann Jackson drew her initial interest in science from her parents' strong encouragement in her education and by her father helping her with her science projects. She attended high school in Washington DC and had to deal with racial segregation. Shirley did very well in school, though, and was in accelerated classes for both math and science and even graduated as valedictorian (the person in the school with the highest grades). After graduating high school she became part of the first wave of black students–less than 20–to be accepted into MIT; and there was only one other black woman besides Shirley.

Once she got to MIT, however, she found that she was in an environment that was not entirely accepting of her because of the color of her skin. Some students would not sit next to her in class, she was sometimes shouted at and spat upon while walking on the street, she wasn't welcomed to study in study groups, and she wasn't taken seriously by her professors. But Shirley Ann knew she could succeed and she knew that because she was in the spotlight, her successes would be magnified along with her failures. If she ever did fail though, it was a rarity and soon everyone was aware of her ability and many came back, looking to her for help. And rather than laughing at them and being spiteful, she welcomed them and helped them with their work. She turned her enemies into her friends.

After she completed her undergraduate degree at MIT she was accepted into graduate programs at Harvard, Brown, and the University of Chicago, however she decided to stay and do her graduate work at MIT to encourage more black students to attend. Upon completion of her graduate work–making her the first black female American to earn a physics doctorate–she studied physics at a number of prestigious institutions including Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, to name a few. Shirley Ann was also involved with AT&T Bell Labs for roughly 20 years as both a full time employee and then as a consultant while she served as a professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Afterwards, in 1995, she was appointed by President Clinton as both the first African American and first woman to serve as the Chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In 1999, Shirley Ann Jackson became the 18th president of Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (RPI), another first, and still holds the position today. She now primarily spends her time with another passion she has: giving back to the community and working to bring equality to the people. And she has also had time to have a family, being married to Dr. Morris Washington, who is a physics professor at RPI and having a son, Alan, who is a Dartmouth college alum. With Shirley Ann in mind it's easy to believe that you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it!

For More Information:

Prism Profile "Her Brilliant Career"
RPI profile of President Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.

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