Shirley Ann Jackson was born August 5, 1946 in Washington D.C. Her parents strongly valued education and encouraged her in school. At Roosevelt High School, Jackson attended accelerated programs in both math and science, and graduated in 1964 as valedictorian.
Jackson began classes at MIT in 1964, one of fewer than 20 African-American students and the only one studying theoretical physics. She earned her bachelor’s degree in 1968, writing her thesis on solid-state physics. 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 first position was as research associate at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois (known as Fermilab) where she studied hadrons. Jackson joined the Theoretical Physics Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1976, examining the fundamental properties of various materials.
In 1978, 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. She has prepared or collaborated on over 100 scientific articles. Jackson served on the 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.
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. 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. In June 2010, it was announced that the Rensselaer Board of Trustees unanimously voted to extend Jackson a 10-year contract renewal, which she accepted.
Her achievements in science and education have been recognized with multiple awards. Jackson was inducted into the 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. In 2009, President Obama appointed Jackson to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a 20 member advisory group dedicated to public policy.