The Lady Who Declared Herself “Shirley the Great” At 4 Years Old

Written by Storyteller

“Shirley the Great.” That’s what Shirley Ann Jackson, at age 4, declared to her mother she would someday be called.

Today, young Shirley is Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, a theoretical physicist who has spent her career researching and teaching particle physics – the branch of physics that uses theories and mathematics to predict the existence of subatomic particles and forces that bind them together.  Dr. Jackson is also the former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the current President of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Shirley Ann Jackson was born in Washington, D. C., on August 5, 1946, and grew up in the city’s northwest district. The second daughter of Beatrice and George Jackson; her mother was a social worker, her father a postal worker.

Shirley Ann Jackson

Early on, Shirley showed a passion and gift for science, encouraged by her father, who often told her, “Aim for the stars so that you can reach the treetops, and at least you’ll get off the ground.”

Her father frequently got involved with her science projects, even the one involving live bumblebees that Shirley fed with sugar and collected in 30 jars jammed into the basement crawl space. Jackson also built soapbox go-karts with her sister, Gloria, an activity that fed into her lifelong interest in “how things work.”

Both Shirley’s parents believed strongly in education, encouraging her to participate in an accelerated program in mathematics and science at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D. C. where she was a straight-A student and valedictorian of her Class of 1964.

In that same year, Shirley went off to college at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT), still a rare destination for a black woman at that point, the height of the civil rights struggle. She was one of 45 women and a handful of African Americans in her 900-member freshman class.

Shirley was unprepared for the loneliness at MIT, telling Science magazine that not only the guys, but “the irony is that the white girls weren’t particularly working with me, either.”  So, Jackson said, “I had to work alone and I went through a down period.  But, at some level you have to decide you will persist in what you’re doing and that you won’t let people beat you down.”

Rising above the social isolation, Jackson delved more and more into the scientific world she loved, discovering a particular niche in materials science.  But, Jackson was also politically active during college and organized the Black Student Association, working to increase the number of minority students on campus, and she tutored at the YMCA in Boston’s black neighborhood of Roxbury.

Shirley thrived academically at MIT.  And upon her graduation in 1968, (although she was accepted at Brown, Harvard, and the University of Chicago), she decided to stay at MIT for her doctoral work because she wanted to encourage more African Americans to attend the institution.

During grad school, her specialization was theoretical elementary particle physics, directed by James Young, the first full-time tenured black professor in the Physics department. Shirley received her advanced degree in 1973, the first black woman at MIT to realize that goal in any academic category.

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