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Q&A: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president Shirley Ann Jackson on navigating the ivory tower as a Black woman

21 April 2021

The renowned high-energy physicist was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate from MIT.

Shirley Ann Jackson’s storied career encompasses postdoctoral years at Fermilab and CERN, more than a decade at AT&T Bell Laboratories, and multiple stints in public service—including as head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. She has a long list of honorary degrees and accolades, including the Vannevar Bush Award for contributions to science and public policy and the National Medal of Science.

Shirley Ann Jackson
Credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

But before Jackson was an accomplished researcher and policy expert, she was a young Black woman trying to navigate the halls of the ivory tower. She spent her undergraduate years at MIT as one of only a handful of Black students and experienced open hostility and discrimination, but she nevertheless decided to stay at MIT for graduate school. Jackson became the first Black woman to earn a PhD there, and only the second Black woman in the US to earn a PhD in physics in 1973.

The interview that follows is an edited excerpt from the oral history of Jackson conducted by David Zierler, an oral historian for the Niels Bohr Library and Archives (part of the American Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics Today). The full transcript of the interview can be found on the library’s website.

ZIERLER: I’m curious: Who came up with the idea that you would go to MIT? Did it seem like a crazy notion to you when they first suggested it?

JACKSON: Well, two people. At the time I was in school, we had the assistant principal for girls, who was a white female, and the assistant principal for boys, who was an African American male. The assistant principal for boys felt that because of my accomplishments and ability, I should think about a place like MIT. Simultaneously, my father knew or learned about MIT, and he thought I should go there. So that’s how I ended up thinking about and ultimately applying and going to MIT.

Attending MIT didn’t seem like a crazy idea to me because I was very interested in math and science. I thought I might be a mathematician, and MIT seemed like the perfect place. I thought there would be other people like me and it would be fun.

ZIERLER: Did you have a sense of how barrier-breaking that decision was, even as an 18-year-old?

JACKSON: You know, I don’t want you to think I was oblivious to things. It’s just that I never dwelt on them. I was thinking more about the science and what I wanted to do, and what I would have to do to be successful. And yes, it did come up because my mother was not especially enamored of my going because she felt that I might be the only Black, or the only Black female, at MIT, and she was almost right. My class had one other African American woman, and she and I became the first two African American women to graduate from MIT.

Everybody looks at my PhD, but actually my classmate and I were the first two African American women to graduate with bachelor’s degrees from MIT. Others enrolled—at least one other came earlier, but she didn’t stay and graduate.

ZIERLER: Why do you think your mother was concerned that so few people like you would be at MIT?

JACKSON: Because she had been doing some reading about Boston, particularly about South Boston. There was some racial strife, and a serial killer had been active there not too long before. She read about MIT, and she didn’t see that there were many, or any, Negroes or African Americans. Those are the reasons she didn’t want me to go.

ZIERLER: I wonder if the transition to MIT was easy for you.

JACKSON: Yes and no. I was not intimidated by the city because I had grown up in a city, Washington, DC. But I had never been around that many white people before in my life. Even though I went through segregation and desegregation, the idea of living with white people was a little different.

And everybody was smart. I was excited because I was going to have the chance to really be in the group, and in the math and science environment I always craved. But then I was not welcomed.

Great Dome at MIT
Great Dome at MIT. Credit: Mys 721tx, CC BY-SA 3.0

ZIERLER: How were you ever made to feel, even in a subtle way, that you didn’t belong at a place like MIT?

JACKSON: Yes, that was my experience in a couple of different ways. When I was a freshman, I took a course in materials science. The other African American woman and I were in the class together, and the professor would call us Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Because I had As in the class—in fact, I had the highest grade in class—he advised me to study materials science because it was easier than physics. He advised me that colored girls should learn a trade, and therefore that major would be good for me.

ZIERLER: How did you respond to that incident? Did you feel empowered to tell him how offensive it was?

JACKSON: No, I didn’t say anything at that point. It did hurt my feelings, and I made up my mind that however interested I might’ve been in materials, I would not be majoring in it because he was a senior professor in that department. I was more interested in basic physics anyway.

That incident was also just one of many that happened. No one ever invited me into their study groups, even the women in my class.

One day I was working on a physics problem set, and I got up to go to the restroom across the hall from my dorm room. I was surprised to see the women from my class who also lived on the floor out there working on the problems together. So I gathered up my papers and I asked, “May I join you?” And one of them said, “Go away.” And I replied, “Well, look, I’ve done half the problems, and I think I know how to do the other half.” Another one said, “Well, didn’t you hear what she said? She said, ‘Go away.’” So I did. I went back to my room and I cried a little bit, and then I decided, well, I do have to finish these physics problems. So I did.

ZIERLER: Did you have any allies at MIT?

JACKSON: Sort of. A woman named Margaret MacVicar, who was a grad student in materials science, was the TA in the course I took. She would talk with me. She had been a physics major but then got her doctorate in materials science. In fact, she tried to influence me to get my PhD in materials science, but I ultimately decided against that.

I also got to know a couple of professors, one of whom was the physicist Jerry Friedman. We got to know each other pretty well, but we didn’t socialize because he was a big professor. So, yes, Jerry Friedman and Margaret MacVicar would encourage me.

ZIERLER: Did you try to use your social disadvantages to your academic advantage?

JACKSON: Well, I probably did, but not consciously. Believe it or not, my focus was more on doing well. I wanted to show my mother that I would be OK. I wanted to live up to my father’s expectations of me. I was raised to believe, and I always believed, that there should never be a place that others can go that I cannot go, and that there are no things that others can do that I cannot do.

Now, I can’t tell you that my confidence wasn’t affected. But even though I was isolated, and I didn’t have a ton of friends from my class, the irony is that I did well. The more advanced the subjects got, the better I did. I was always on the dean’s list.

ZIERLER: Did you ever think about the disconnect between the loftiness of the discipline you were pursuing and how lowly some of the people could act?

JACKSON: I did, sure, quite a bit. That disconnect was always a big disappointment, and hurtful. But one of the things I learned from my parents is not to wallow in self-pity, to try to see where the pathway is and to pursue it. And I believe this very strongly—you pass through your window in time, and if the window opens or the door opens, you step through it.

Now, that’s not to say you don’t fight for things, both in the personal and professional sense. I wasn’t oblivious to what was going on. But I also knew that, one, I went to MIT to become a scientist. And two, if I was going to do something for other people, I had to reach a certain position.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t come to a point where you have to take a stand and carry out your own fight for justice. I did that, especially as a graduate student. But I was by myself as an undergrad. The women in my class didn’t treat me particularly well, and certainly neither did the men. So who were going to be my allies?

I actually joined an African American sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. It was a New England–wide chapter because there were so few of us at any of the schools around. We had members who came from Pembroke (which is now part of Brown), Yale, Radcliffe (which has now been absorbed by Harvard), Northeastern, Boston University, and UMass Amherst. So people came from a long way, and we came together. I was the president of the chapter for two years, and that’s when I began to think that maybe I had some leadership interests.

We did a lot of work trying to influence and improve things in the Black community in Boston. We also had tutoring programs, and I personally tutored at the YMCA in Roxbury and worked as a volunteer at Boston City Hospital, which is now part of the Boston Medical Center. I worked in a pediatric ward, and they had kids of all races. That experience taught me a little bit about human suffering at a very young age, and that everybody carries some burden.

On the one hand, you could argue that those experiences kept my humanity intact. On the other, I was dealing with more systemic things, racial things, at MIT. But I was there doing very well academically. I didn’t just live a dichotomous life, I lived a trichotomous life. I’ve always felt that I wanted to do well in science, but that I could also use it as a springboard to do other things.

ZIERLER: Right in the middle of your undergraduate education, both the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement really started to pick up steam. Were you personally a part of either of those movements?

JACKSON: The antiwar movement was probably a bigger deal at MIT than the civil rights movement, and the demonstrations were huge. There was a big sit-in. Some people even got arrested, and one young man went to jail. Ironically, there was less linkage to the civil rights movement. But I was more involved in that movement through organizations I belonged to outside of MIT, such as the sorority. And then the year I graduated, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.

Shirley Ann Jackson in college
Shirley Ann Jackson in her college years. Credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, CC BY-SA 4.0

ZIERLER: Can you talk a little bit about what your bachelor’s thesis was on?

JACKSON: I did a joint bachelor’s thesis in physics and materials science. My thesis was on the tunneling density of states in superconducting niobium–titanium alloys, so the materials science piece was that I actually made the samples—I did the depositing of strips to create a tunneling junction, oxidizing the niobium, putting down the strips, and attaching leads and all of that. The measurements had to do with the tunneling in the superconducting material, and then I worked up a little model.

I was interested in the theory behind superconductivity, and at that time the dominant theory was the BCS (Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer) theory. I knew that for my graduate studies I wanted to work more on the theoretical side, but Bardeen was controversial because he was known to have certain attitudes about race. He was at the University of Illinois, and so even though that was a place that a lot of people thought would be good for grad school, I did not apply.

Despite being admitted to Brown, Harvard, Chicago, and Penn, I decided to stay at MIT, partly because of King’s assassination. I had been at MIT as an undergrad and I had gone through a lot of things. I was chased. I was shot at. I was spit on. All those things happened outside the context of MIT, but in Boston. And then at MIT, there was isolation, hostility, and that kind of thing.

ZIERLER: It sounds like a great reason to leave MIT.

JACKSON: Well, that’s why I did apply to these other places, and I was thinking seriously about Penn. Dr. King was assassinated on the day I returned from my visit to Penn. I had had a good visit. They invited me to come, and they said I could start early doing some research the summer before I began. I was seriously going to go to Penn.

But after Dr. King was killed, I thought about the fact that I had been at MIT and been pretty quiet. They had an event commemorating his life, which I felt was a little disingenuous because nobody had ever cared about those issues, as far as I could see. I thought that I could make a difference, and I decided to stay. So a group of us African American students formed the Black Students Union, and I was one of the first cochairs. In the spring of my senior year, we presented our demands—we called them proposals—to the administration to change things.

ZIERLER: What were you looking to change with those proposals?

JACKSON: To have MIT recruit more minority students, particularly African Americans, to give people better financial aid, to create a bridge-type program, to try to hire more African American professors and administration. There was a list of 10 things.

MIT formed a task force on educational opportunity, and it was headed by Paul Gray, who was then an associate provost at MIT. He had been on a sabbatical, and when he came back, the university put him in charge of the task force. I was asked to join, so I got to know him. Paul and I became really good friends over the years.

ZIERLER: How did your decision to stay at MIT affect your research direction?

JACKSON: Even though MIT had a strong materials science and engineering department, it wasn’t so strong in solid-state physics. That wasn’t as prominent as nuclear physics and high-energy physics. When I decided to stay, there was a professor that wanted me to work in an experimental group. But in the end I decided I wanted to do theory, and so that’s what I did. I ended up doing elementary particle theory.

ZIERLER: It was a very exciting time to be involved in elementary particle theory. Who were some of the professors that you became close with as a graduate student?

JACKSON: As a grad student, Jerry Friedman and I still interacted quite a bit, and Roman Jackiw, who was a theoretical physicist. And later a younger professor, Bob Jaffe, who’s now a senior professor. I did my graduate thesis with Jim Young, and I was initially enamored because he was African American. But in fact he didn’t help me very much or spend a lot of time with me.

He was kind of an absentee thesis adviser. I ended up spending more time talking with Roman Jackiw. Even before I did my thesis work, I had done a problem on three-body systems with him. And that collaboration turned out to be important because as I was finishing my PhD, Jackiw called me in and asked, “Well, what are you doing next?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know.” Then a day or so later, he called me and said, “Look, there’s a position that’s opened at Fermilab, and I think you need to look at it and take it,” which I did. So he ended up having more of an effect on launching my career than my thesis adviser did.

ZIERLER: Did you ever wonder why your own thesis adviser—particularly someone who’s African American—would keep you at arm’s length?

JACKSON: You know, I tried—I was upset and offended. But at a certain point, I couldn’t get into his head. I’m not a psychologist, and I needed to get my thesis done. I needed to get a job and I needed to start my career.

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