Everything in the world around us is made of tiny bits of matter. Understanding how those tiny bits of matter interact as they travel through space and time – the study of ‘physics’ – helps us make more sense of the world in which we live. It is because of the research of scientists like Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson that we are able to have computers that fit in our pocket, and phones that fit in our watch.
After graduating as Valedictorian from Washington DC’s Roosevelt High School in 1964, Dr. Jackson attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she first studied theoretical physics, and continued on for her graduate work in elementary particle theory. In 1973, Shirley became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT in nuclear physics, and only the second African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics in the United States. Her doctoral thesis, “The Study of Multiperipheral Model with Continued Cross-Channel Unitarity,” was published in the Annals of Physics in 1975. Dr. Jackson’s research specialty was theoretical condensed matter physics, especially layered systems, and the physics of opto-electronic materials.
Dr. Jackson worked at a number of prestigious physics labs in the United States and Europe after receiving her doctorate. Eventually, she settled in at the Theoretical Physics Research Department at Bell Labs, where she worked for more than 15 years. Moving to academia in 1991, she joined the faculty at Rutgers University to teach and conduct research projects. In 1999, Dr. Jackson became the president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), known as the oldest technological university in the English-speaking world. She is now in her second 10-year contract as president of RPI.
One of the most interesting parts of Dr. Jackson’s job is she gets to study the particles that make up every atom in everything around us. There are several ways to study subatomic particles.using a particle accelerator which speeds up particles to incredibly fast speeds and then smashes them into each other (think NASCAR with incredibly small bits of stuff, circling around magnets to achieve superfast speeds, and then a giant crash at the end).
Dr. Jackson worked for President Clinton as the first woman and the first African American to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She was later appointed by President Obama in to serve on the President’sCouncil of Advisors on Science and Technology in April of 2009. Through the years she received many fellowships and awards to recognize her achievements as a scientist and teacher. Because of her “significant contributions as a distinguished scientist for education, science, and public policy, ” Dr. Jackson was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of fame in 1998.