A theoretical physicist, Dr. Jackson has had a distinguished career that includes senior leadership positions in academia, government, industry, and research. She holds an S.B. in Physics, and a Ph.D. in Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics — both from MIT. She is the first African American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT — in any field — and has been a trailblazer throughout her career, including as the first African-American woman to lead a top-ranked research university.
Renaissance at Rensselaer
Since 1999, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson has led an extraordinary transformation of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut, into a world-class technological research university. Rankings for Rensselaer among national universities have risen substantially under Dr. Jackson's tenure, and the number of students applying to join the freshman class has tripled.
Dr. Jackson's initial vision of remaking Rensselaer was captured in an ambitious strategic effort known as The Rensselaer Plan. Over the last 20 years, more than $1.3 billion has been invested in The Rensselaer Plan and The Rensselaer Plan 2024, and the campus has been transformed by state-of-the-art research platforms that include the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, and the Center for Computational Innovations, which houses the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university. Dr. Jackson prepared Rensselaer for leadership in areas of research that are of fundamental significance in the 21st century by focusing on "signature thrusts" in computational science and engineering; biotechnology and the life sciences; nanotechnology and advanced materials; energy, the environment, and smart systems; and media, arts, science, and technology. Her tenure has been marked by a tripling of sponsored research awards and expenditures, and the hiring of nearly 400 tenured and tenure-track faculty members, as well as advances in the curriculum, an increase in scholarships, growth of undergraduate research, and bold innovations in student life, including the award-winning First-Year Experience and Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students (CLASS).
Dr. Jackson launched the $1 billion Transformative: Campaign for Global Change in October 2017. Previously, she secured for Rensselaer a $360 million anonymous unrestricted gift in 2001 — one of the largest gifts in history to any university in the United States. In 2004, she launched the $1 billion Renaissance at Rensselaer capital campaign, which was expanded to $1.4 billion in 2006. The campaign met that goal nine months ahead of schedule in 2008, exceeding all previous fundraising efforts at Rensselaer.
The Rensselaer Plan now has been refreshed, as the university moves toward the bicentennial of its founding in 2024. The Rensselaer Plan 2024 is intended to make Rensselaer transformative in the global impact of its research, in the lives of its students, and its pedagogy. Toward that end, forward-looking research initiatives at Rensselaer are underway to address the greatest challenges of humanity in energy, water, and food security; national and global security; human health; climate change; and the allocation of scarce natural resources. These initiatives include The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, or The Rensselaer IDEA, which brings together the strengths of the university in web science, high-performance computing, cognitive computing, data science and predictive analytics, and immersive technologies — and links them to applications at the interface of engineering and the physical, life, and social sciences — in order to answer complex questions that never could be answered before ─ questions at the root of global challenges.
In accordance with The Rensselaer Plan 2024, the university now offers a complete student experience for graduate students as well as undergraduates, through CLASS. Rensselaer also is taking the lead in pedagogical innovation, including creating the multiplayer and mixed reality classroom, as well as cyber-enabled discovery and learning — all of which are informed by the cutting-edge research at Rensselaer in data science, immersive environments, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science that takes place at Rensselaer.
In 2014, United States President Barack Obama appointed Dr. Jackson as Co-Chair of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. The Board assessed issues pertaining to the quality, quantity, and adequacy of intelligence activities; the effectiveness of organizational structure, management, and personnel; and the performance of all agencies of the federal government engaged in the collection, evaluation, or production of intelligence, or the execution of intelligence policy.
From 2009 to 2014, Dr. Jackson served on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which assisted the White House in policy formulation in the many areas of science, technology, and innovation that are crucial to strengthening the economy and increasing opportunity. Dr. Jackson was also co-chair of the President's Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), part of the PCAST. In that role, in 2011 she co-authored a report to the President offering an overarching strategy for revitalizing the leadership of the nation in manufacturing. In 2013, Dr. Jackson was named by President Obama to the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee 2.0, charged with making recommendations for invigorating the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy.
Dr. Jackson also served on the U.S. Secretary of State's International Security Advisory Board, the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, and the U.S. Comptroller-General's Advisory Committee for the Government Accountability Office (GAO). From 2012 to 2014, Dr. Jackson served on the National Commission for the Review of the Research and Development Programs of the United States Intelligence Community. Earlier, she served on the Advisory Committee for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) from 2001 to 2003, and on the National Advisory Council for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 2002 to 2005.
Dr. Jackson was Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) from 1995 to 1999, appointed by President William Jefferson Clinton. The NRC licenses, regulates, and safeguards the use of nuclear reactor byproduct material in the U.S. and is charged with the protection of the public health and safety, the environment, and the common defense and security. As Chairman, Dr. Jackson was the principal executive officer of the NRC, with ultimate authority for all NRC functions pertaining to an emergency involving an NRC licensee.
While at the NRC, Dr. Jackson initiated a strategic assessment of the agency, leading to a new planning, budgeting, and performance management system that put the NRC on a more businesslike footing. She conceptualized and introduced risk-informed, performance-based regulation to the NRC that used probabilistic risk assessment on a consistent basis. As a result, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) implemented a risk-informed revision to its codes and standards for nuclear power plants and key nuclear components, and elements of risk-informed regulation were incorporated into the nuclear regulatory programs of other nations. Dr. Jackson also led the development of a new reactor oversight program and a license renewal process that resulted in the first renewal (in March 2000) of the license of an operating reactor in the United States.
As chairman of the NRC, Dr. Jackson represented the United States four times as a delegate to the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria (1995, 1996, 1997, 1998). Dr. Jackson also spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA) as a high-level forum to examine the issues surrounding nuclear safety and to allow nations to assist each other in this effort. The association included the most senior nuclear regulatory officials from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States (and now South Korea, with China as an observer). Dr. Jackson was elected as the first INRA chairman, a position she held from 1997 to 1999.
Prior to her appointment to the NRC, Dr. Jackson served on the Advisory Council of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), and was a member of the U.S. Department of Energy task force on the future of its multipurpose National Laboratories (the 1994 "Galvin" Commission). She also served on several high-level commissions in the state of New Jersey, including the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology.
As a theoretical physicist, Dr. Jackson's research specialty is in condensed matter physics, especially layered systems, and the physics of opto-electronic materials.
From 1991 to 1995, Dr. Jackson was a professor of physics at Rutgers University, where she taught undergraduate and graduate students, conducted research on the electronic and optical properties of two-dimensional systems, and supervised Ph.D. candidates. She concurrently served as a consultant in semiconductor theory to AT&T Bell Laboratories.
From 1976 to 1991, Dr. Jackson conducted research in theoretical physics, solid-state and quantum physics, and optical physics at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Her primary research foci were the optical and electronic properties of layered materials that included transition metal dichalcogenides, electrons on the surface of liquid helium films, and strained-layer semiconductor superlattices. She is best known for her work on the polaronic aspects of electrons in two-dimensional systems.
Before joining Bell Labs, Dr. Jackson spent two postdoctoral years working at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, as well as a year at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland.
Professional Affiliations and Board Service
Dr. Jackson was elected as an international fellow of the British Royal Academy of Engineering in 2012 and has served on the Academy's Standing Committee for International Affairs since 2013. She is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the American Philosophical Society, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Jackson is a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest general scientific society in the world. She is also a past president of AAAS and former chairman of the AAAS board of directors. In 2003, she delivered the William Carey Lecture of the AAAS.
Dr. Jackson serves as a director of IBM Corporation, FedEx Corporation, Medtronic Inc., and Public Service Enterprise Group Incorporated, as well as a member of the Nature Conservancy’s global Board of Directors. She was previously a member of the board of governors of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), a member of the board of directors of NYSE Euronext and its predecessors, and chairman of the board of NYSE Regulation from 2006 to 2013. Over the years, she has also served on a number of other public company boards.
Dr. Jackson is the former Vice Chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution and in October 2017 she was named Regent Emerita, a trustee of the Brookings Institution, a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, and member of the board of the World Economic Forum USA. She is a life member of the MIT Corporation (the MIT Board of Trustees). Dr. Jackson also served as University Vice Chair of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness from 2008 to 2013, and, during that period, co-chaired the Council's Energy Security, Sustainability, and Innovation (ESIS) initiative. Dr. Jackson also has served on a number of committees of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.
Honors and Accolades
In addition to the doctorate from MIT, Dr. Jackson has been awarded 55 honorary doctoral degrees.
Dr. Jackson was the recipient of the 2019 Burton Award from the Forum on Physics Society “for distinguished application of her knowledge of physics to strengthen the use of nuclear power as Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, advance education as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and render broad service to government, charitable, and corporate board and committees.”
In 2018, Dr. Jackson was awarded the W.E.B. DuBois Medal from the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. The medal honors those who have made significant contributions to African and African American history and culture, and more broadly, individuals who advocate for intercultural understanding and human rights in an increasingly global and interconnected world.
In 2016, United States President Barack Obama awarded Dr. Jackson the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for contributions in science and engineering. In 2015, Dr. Jackson received the inaugural Alice H. Parker Award from the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, which honors women leaders in innovation.
Dr. Jackson was one of four honorees inducted in 2014 into the U.S. News STEM Leadership Hall of Fame. Hall of Fame members are chosen by a committee of industry, academic and nonprofit leaders, and honored for achieving measurable results, challenging conventional wisdom, and motivating future professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In 2014, Dr. Jackson also was inducted into the Tech Valley Business Hall of Fame.
In 2013, the board of trustees of the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame (NJIHoF) bestowed the prestigious NJIHoF Trustees Award upon Dr. Jackson. The award is given to "someone who truly values and stimulates the inventive and innovative processes, who strives to ensure that all Americans, including students, are inspired and prepared to meet many of the challenges of tomorrow, and whose actions over many years have demonstrated that commitment."
Dr. Jackson received the inaugural America Competes Award for Public Service in 2012, given by the U.S. Council on Competitiveness to "a leader who has worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life in America and abroad, through public service and private sector outreach, and to those who show an extraordinary commitment to excellence and the American spirit."
In 2011, the American Association for the Advancement of Science honored Dr. Jackson with its prestigious Philip Hauge Abelson Award. This award is given annually to a public servant who has made sustained exceptional contributions to the advancement of science, or to a scientist whose career has been distinguished both for scientific achievement and for other notable services to the scientific community. Dr. Jackson was cited by AAAS for her "extraordinary leadership of and contributions to the scientific community, government, universities, industries, and future generations of science and engineering professionals."
In 2010, Dr. Jackson was honored by Black Enterprise Magazine with its Women of Power Legacy Award.
In 2009, she received the Bouchet Leadership Award Medal from the Yale University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, a national award given to leaders in academia who are outstanding in their fields of study and have played an important role in diversifying higher education. Dr. Jackson also received the 2009 Dr. John Hope Franklin Award from Diverse Issues in Higher Education Magazine.
In 2008, Dr. Jackson received the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' Ralph Coats Roe Medal. She was recognized "for significant contributions to science and technology education, and professional practice ... and for notable public service and contributions to the nation and humankind." Dr. Jackson also was honored with the L'Oreal USA For Women in Science Role Model Award in 2008, for raising awareness of the critical role that women play in the sciences.
Describing her as "a national treasure," the National Science Board selected Dr. Jackson as its 2007 recipient of the prestigious Vannevar Bush Award for "a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy." That same year, Dr. Jackson was honored by AARP The Magazine with one of 10 Impact Awards given to "extraordinary" people who "have made the world a better place through their innovative thinking, passion, and perseverance."
In 2006, Dr. Jackson received the President's Award of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for her "outstanding contributions to the engineering profession and for her dedication to the promotion of diversity and inclusion in engineering education." That same year, the Troy Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (TRIP) presented its Community Citizenship Award to Dr. Jackson for the contributions made by Rensselaer to the revitalization of the greater Troy area.
Dr. Jackson was named as one of seven 2004 fellows of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). AWIS is dedicated to achieving equity and the full participation of women in all fields of science and technology.
In 2002, Dr. Jackson was named as one of the "top 50 women in science" by Discover magazine and recognized in the ESSENCE book 50 of The Most Inspiring African Americans. She also was cited as one of "50 R&D stars to watch" by Industry Week magazine.
In 2001, Dr. Jackson received the Richtmyer Memorial Lecture Award from the American Association of Physics Teachers. Dr. Jackson also received the 2001 Immortal Award for the 15th Annual Black History Makers Awards sponsored by Associated Black Charities and, that same year, became the first woman to win the Black Engineer of the Year Award from US Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine.
In 2000, Dr. Jackson was awarded the Golden Torch Award for Lifetime Achievement in Academia by the National Society of Black Engineers. That same year, Dr. Jackson received the 100 Women of Excellence Award from the Albany-Colonie (New York) Regional Chamber of Commerce & Women's Business Council, which recognizes women who pioneered change in the region over the past century. She also was inducted into the Women in Technology International Foundation Hall of Fame (WITI) in 2000. WITI recognizes women technologists and scientists whose achievements are exceptional.
Dr. Jackson was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998 for her contributions as a distinguished scientist and advocate for education, science, and public policy. In 1993, she was awarded the New Jersey Governor's Award in Science (the Thomas Alva Edison Award).