Profiles / Women in STEM


Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Growing up, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson was intrigued by the world around her. She can easily recall being absolutely fascinated by her surroundings, curious about the how and why of natural occurrences. She was so curious, in fact, that she often ran her own scientific experiments on insects, learning their habits and diets, exposing them to various stimuli then watching and recording detailed observations in notebooks. She remembers the crawlspace underneath her back porch being lined with jars of subjects – wasps, yellow jackets, bumblebees and other creeping things. She was a scientist from the very beginning.

Now, some decades later, she is one of the most influential scientists in the world. In 2007, she was awarded the Vannevar Bush Award by the National Science Board for “a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy.” In 1973, Dr. Jackson became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has served as a professor of Theoretical Physics at Rutgers University and as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She is currently serving as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as well as serving on the boards of several high-profile organizations including the New York Stock Exchange, IBM, FedEx, Marathon Oil and Smithsonian Institution.

Her love for science goes hand-in-hand with her affinity for mathematics. And she is passionate about how the two play an invaluable role in keeping America competitive as a nation. The key, she says, is in introducing young people to science early – its wonder and beauty, its ability to solve mysteries and give insight. The best way to create new scientist is simply to show young people science both inside and outside of the classroom.

Dr. Jackson insists, “We have to excite them about the wonders of the natural world. We have to invite them by letting them know that they too can become scientists or engineers or work in these fields.” An for that reason she is a strong and vocal advocate for increasing STEM education in K-12 settings. Doing so will strengthen the likelihood that young people will find an authentic affinity for the sciences.

“Over the last 20 years or more, the actual growth in technology- and science-linked jobs has been about 4.2 percent per year. The actual availability of U.S.-born workers in those fields has grown at about 1.5 percent per year.” Finding well-trained, experience talent will continue to be a challenge for which there is no remedy save the absolute investment of the nation’s resources into building a more qualified workforce. “At the higher educational levels, we really are not attracting as many young people as we should,” says Dr. Jackson. “Particularly to not only get first degrees in these fields, but to move on and get graduate degrees.” She continues, “There’s a global race for talent. It takes a long time to create a high-functioning theoretical physicist or nuclear engineer. And so it’s a time factor that makes us not see it.” But the need is critical.

It was Time magazine that described Dr. Jackson as “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science,” an impressive underlining caption for a most impressive thought leader. And we need more like her.