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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Fermilab 50th Anniversary Symposium

Category: International
June, 2017

Fermilab 50th Anniversary Symposium

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

I am delighted to be here for the Fermilab 50th Anniversary Symposium. I know that you have spent most of the day considering the remarkable science that has been conducted at Fermilab—and that will be conducted in future.

Fermilab, however, is more than a great laboratory for experiments in high energy physics. It also is a magnificent training ground for early career scientists. It was a magnificent training ground for me!

I have been asked to talk about something a little different: about my career as a theoretical physicist and the arc it has followed through positions in academia, government, industry, and research.

That career began for me here at Fermilab in 1973 in my first post-doctoral position, shortly after earning my doctorate in theoretical elementary particle physics from MIT.

The fact that I wound up in high-energy physics at all—when my first love, I must confess, was condensed matter physics, is a story worth telling. It begins pretty early.

As a child, I was very fortunate in the convergence of two events that allowed me to receive an excellent education. The first was the desegregation of the Washington, DC public schools in 1955, after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. This meant that I could attend a good school, right in my own neighborhood, with more competition, and with children from backgrounds different from mine, who introduced me to new perspectives—a place where I excelled.

The second event occurred two years later, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, which occasioned fear among United States political leaders and policymakers that we might be losing the Cold War. They responded not just by sparking the Space Race, which, as you know, culminated with manned missions to the moon. Sputnik 1 also spurred a new emphasis on mathematics and science in the public schools, from which I benefitted tremendously.

I was tested in the sixth grade and placed in an accelerated honors academic program in the seventh grade, allowing me to finish high school with a number of advanced, college level subjects—before the advent of AP courses!

I was valedictorian of my high school graduating class, and after a very encouraging educational experience, entered MIT, where for the first time, I experienced real discrimination, as one of just two African American women in my class. It was not merely the students who were unwelcoming, leaving me out of their study groups. Some of the professors were equally unwelcoming, and tried to discourage my interest in physics, as somehow inappropriate for a young African American woman.

But I realized that I was faced with a choice: either to give in to ignorance, or stubbornly to pursue excellence. I chose the latter.

When I was a senior at MIT, deciding where to attend graduate school and ready to be elsewhere, having admitted me, the University of Pennsylvania physics department invited me to visit in April of 1968. I fully intended to be a theoretical condensed matter physicist, and one of the physicists whose work in this field most interested me was at Penn, in particular, in superconductivity—where I had done work for my bachelor’s thesis at MIT.

But a strange, tragic coincidence sent me down a different path. As I was leaving Penn after the visit, in a car with my sorority sister, on my way to the Philadelphia airport, the radio broadcast was interrupted, and we learned that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot, and later died. We nearly drove the car off the road.

By the time I got back to Cambridge, I knew that I would remain at MIT for graduate school. I was inspired by the courage of Dr. King, and MIT was the place where I would have the greatest possible opportunity to change things for the better. Of course, MIT was an excellent place to study physics, but it was not as active in condensed matter physics at that time, so I changed my focus to elementary particle physics.

This sacrifice—if it was a sacrifice!—was more than worthwhile, given the important ways that I was able to influence MIT, and through MIT, our national community of scientists and engineers.

With a group of like-minded students, I formed the Black Students’ Union, and we presented proposals to the MIT administration that would make MIT a much more welcoming place for minorities. Provost Paul Gray, who later became President of MIT, listened, formed a Task Force on Educational Opportunity, and asked me to join it.

The Task Force accomplished a great deal, and MIT began, for the first time, to actively recruit minority students and faculty in significant numbers. It also initiated a six-week summer program, called Project Interphase, that helped to prepare incoming minority freshmen for the rigorous coursework they would encounter. The program was open to all who needed it, and though I was still a student, I was asked to design, and teach in, the physics curriculum.

The students I helped to bring to MIT—and helped to adjust to its culture—truly excelled. They proved to the world that scientific and engineering talent is not restricted to one race, or one sex, or one story of origin.

And because I had proven that I could do theoretical physics well, and assess a complex challenge in a difficult domain—such as the dearth of minorities at MIT, and find practical ways to address it, I became a trusted advisor to many organizations, as well as a scientist, and was offered many more opportunities for leadership. Indeed, today, I am a Life Member of the MIT Corporation—its board of trustees.

After obtaining my Ph.D. in particle physics from MIT, I was fortunate to gain a postdoctoral position here—at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. While here, I worked on a refinement of my thesis—which concerned a multi-peripheral model for single-particle inclusive interactions. I did numerical limit studies for my Ph.D. thesis, after converting a single particle inclusive interaction into a 3-body problem, using certain conservation laws. I was able to develop an exact solution while at Fermilab, after understanding that certain kinds of symmetries inherent in the problem were Lie Group relevant.

Of course, by welcoming scientists from all over the world, Fermilab always has been a catalyst for great friendships, as well as for great physics. In my first year here, I had the privilege of getting to know a fellow theorist, Dr. Mary K. Gaillard, who was visiting from CERN. She persuaded me to spend the next year working with her in Switzerland.

Of course, the cost of living in Geneva, Switzerland was considerably higher than in Batavia, Illinois. But, sometimes doors open. As a graduate student, I had had a Ford Foundation Fellowship, so the Foundation was familiar with my work. Although they did not ordinarily grant postdoctoral fellowships, they awarded me an individual grant for this year, which CERN then supplemented. At CERN, I worked with Mary K. on a paper on neutrinos—and gained the invaluable perspective offered by time abroad.

It clearly was an exciting moment in particle physics, as the Standard Model was just crystallizing, and new elementary particles were being discovered. I was at CERN when Dr. Samuel C.C. Ting, who had a research group there, discovered the J/psi particle —a discovery for which he and Burton Richter, who also had discovered the particle independently at SLAC, would share the Nobel Prize. This was, of course, followed in 1977 by the discovery at Fermilab of the bottom quark.

After CERN, I returned to Fermilab to complete my second post-doctoral year, which I greatly enjoyed—though a practical reality intruded as my post-doc was coming to an end. Jobs were hard to come by in high-energy physics—in physics, generally, but there were a few opportunities in my original field of interest—theoretical condensed matter physics—in industry as well as academia.

I had attended, as a graduate student, a theoretical physics summer school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I met John Klauder, a theorist at Bell Labs, who facilitated an introduction to the head of the Theoretical Physics Department at Bell Labs.

At an American Physical Society meeting in Atlanta, I had dinner with Dr. T. Maurice Rice of the great Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, who invited to me to Bell Labs to deliver a colloquium. After I described my work on neutrinos, and I explained how I intended to apply my interest in the topological properties of solutions to non-linear field theories to certain models of condensed matter systems, I won a limited-term appointment. A year later, after doing some interesting work with Maurice Rice and Patrick Lee on charge density waves in layered transition metal dichalcogenides, IBM offered me a job. Bell Labs moved quickly to make my position permanent.

Again, it was a thrilling period in physics, and early in my time at Bell Labs, two of its scientists, radio astronomers Dr. Arno Penzias and Dr. Robert Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, experimental confirmation of the Big Bang model of our cosmos.

I had a number of successes at Bell Labs, developing theories to explain change density waves in layered transition metal dichalcogenides, the polaronic aspects of electrons in two-dimensional systems, and the optical and electronic properties of strained-layer semiconductor materials. Because of this research, I achieved recognition within the greater community of scientists, and was elected a fellow of American Physical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I subsequently served on the governing council of the American Physical Society, and on the Executive Committee of the American Institute of Physics.

Two other windows opened for me during my time as a researcher at Bell Labs, that set me down new paths, and changed my life. First, I was asked to join the board of a natural gas company—New Jersey Resources—and for the first time became engaged with energy policy. As a result, I was a natural choice when a recruiter was looking for new director for PSEG, or Public Service Enterprise Group. PSEG owned or co-owned five nuclear reactors. Because of my original background in elementary particle physics, I sat on, and later chaired for a number of years, the PSEG nuclear oversight committee, visiting its nuclear power plants often.

The second window was government service. I was asked by New Jersey Governor Tom Kean to join the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology as a founding member. The Commission created partnerships between industry and government, through investment in disciplines important to the New Jersey economy, such as advanced biotechnology and medicine. The position was unpaid, but required State Senate confirmation, and introduced me to a number of prominent business people and government leaders. Two governors subsequent to Governor Kean also tapped me for unpaid advisory roles— also important enough to require State Senate confirmation.

We always have, in life, both witting and unwitting mentors. I am unsure how my name arose when President Bill Clinton was looking, in 1994, for a Commissioner for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission—or NRC—which licenses, regulates, and safeguards (vis-à-vis nuclear non-proliferation) the use of nuclear reactors, nuclear materials, spent nuclear fuel, and nuclear wastes. However, given my scientific background, government service in New Jersey, and familiarity with nuclear power plants from PSEG, I was ready for this leap.

Of course, I had a moment of disbelief, when the White House first called and asked me to send my resume for an unspecified position. After I interviewed for a spot as one of five commissioners, President Clinton offered me the job of Chairman of the NRC.

Three years earlier, having missed teaching and advising students, I had switched from full-time to part-time at Bell Labs and accepted a position at Rutgers University as a tenured full professor of physics. So I stepped away from a tenured academic position to take on the NRC role, which required some temerity.

Suddenly, I had a staff of 3,000 people, a budget of over $500 million, and responsibility for an organization that oversaw a multi-hundred-billion dollar set of enterprises, at a time of growing public concerns about the safety of nuclear power—especially in the aftermath of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine in 1986.

But, the Chairmanship of the NRC played to my strengths as an elementary particle theorist. I certainly understood the nuclear physics, the technology, the associated public policy, and could work through the complexities of the markets and geo-political environments in which nuclear power and nuclear non-proliferation operated.

I recognized that the NRC needed to reaffirm its fundamental health and safety mission, enhance its regulatory effectiveness, and position itself for change. So I held public meetings, listened to community concerns, and led the development of a strategic plan for the NRC—its first ever. This plan, and the related planning, budgeting, and performance management system (PBPM) I instituted, put the NRC on a more businesslike footing. PBPM still is in use at the NRC today.

We also put in place the first license renewal process to extend the operating life of nuclear reactors, and introduced an approach to regulation at the NRC that used probabilistic risk assessment on a consistent basis—risk-informed, performance-based regulation—which influenced the nuclear codes and standards of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and informed the nuclear regulatory programs of other nations. Risk-informed regulation in the nuclear area persists to this day.

After meeting, early in my tenure at the NRC, with my senior nuclear regulatory counterparts from around the world—under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency—I saw another window of opportunity: the need for even greater international cooperation to avoid disasters such as Chernobyl in future. So, I spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association as a high-level forum to allow nations to assist each other in promoting nuclear safety. The initial membership comprised Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S. I was elected the first Chairman of the group. We (the NRC) also pushed for an international Convention on Nuclear Safety—clearly needed in the aftermath of Chernobyl. Initially, the U.S. Congress (Senate) was hostile to this convention, but we did manage to get it ratified.

Four years later, another unforeseen opportunity arose, and another decision. I was asked to assume the Presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute by its Board of Trustees, who were looking for a change agent after a difficult period during which Rensselaer had five presidents in 14 years.

Having been educated at another technological research university (MIT), I saw that I could help Rensselaer to reach its promise—to become a world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact. Rensselaer has had a rich history since 1824 of producing outstanding graduates, who have designed and built much of the physical and the digital infrastructure of the United States—but in 1999, it was not living up to its full potential.

I also knew that the people I led would need to reimagine their own domains to reach this goal—so I posed five significant questions to the Rensselaer community in my inaugural address, and in our strategic planning process:

  • First, what defines the intellectual core in key disciplines at Rensselaer?
  • Second, in these disciplines, are we in a leadership position?
  • Third, if we are not in a leadership position, do we have the underlying strengths and capabilities necessary to move rapidly into a position of primacy, with the proper focus and investment?
  • Fourth, are there areas that are so vital that we must create a presence in them in order to stand in the community of world-class universities? I suggested three such areas, two of which were existing strengths—information technology, and applied mathematics—and one of which—biotechnology—represented a new direction for Rensselaer.
  • And the final question was: what areas of current endeavor must we be willing to transform—or to give up—in order to focus our resources and our energies to create the impact we envision?

I promised that, together, the Rensselaer community would develop a Rensselaer Plan that would answer these questions, steer our choices, and allow us to choose excellence.

The Rensselaer Plan—approved by our Board of Trustees in May of 2000—indeed, did answer these questions. In fact, it included more than 140 commitments, or “we will” statements. The document was one of sheer resolve that propelled us to where we intended to go. Guided by the Rensselaer Plan, later refreshed as the Rensselaer Plan 2024, we have put into place the people, programs, platforms, and partnerships that have sparked a renaissance at Rensselaer.

We 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.

We have hired over 360 new tenured and tenure- track faculty members in such important areas of multidisciplinary research. Our world-class faculty now includes members of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, members of the National Academy of Inventors, 176 Fellows of technical and professional societies, 63 CAREER Award recipients, and numerous recipients of national and international awards.

We also have transformed our campus in Troy, New York with state-of-the-art research platforms that include the for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts , and the for Computational Innovations, which houses the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university, and which is part of the overall computational ecosystem that includes cognitive systems and data-centric computing technologies.

These investments have both elevated our profile as a major technological research university, and strengthened our undergraduate and graduate curricula—with new degree programs and new academic concentrations. As a result, the number of students applying to join our freshman class has nearly quadrupled. And sponsored research awards and expenditures have tripled.

In taking on the Presidency of Rensselaer, I nonetheless kept my fingers on the pulse of industry by serving on the boards of leading corporations, including IBM, FedEX, and Medtronic plc, and leading non-profits and associations, including the Smithsonian Institution, where I was Vice Chair of the Board of Regents, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where I served both as Chairman and as President.

I also maintained my commitment to policymaking in science and national security. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed me to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, where I served for over 5 years. As a member of PCAST, I co-chaired (with Eric Schmidt of Google) a major study on Advanced Manufacturing, whose recommendations led to a number of major initiatives and programs across the government, and industry/university/government partnerships in key new technology areas that undergird advanced manufacturing.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, when she was the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, asked that I serve on the National Commission for the Review of the Research and Development Programs of the United States Intelligence Community. That experience, among others, led President Barack Obama to ask me, in 2014, to serve as co-Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), which assesses issues pertaining to the quality, quantity, and adequacy of intelligence activities—an important role at a fraught time, given the rise of non-state actors and the threat of cyberattacks of many kinds. In the Intelligence Community R&D review, and especially as Co-chair of PIAB, I advocated for stronger analytical approaches to assessment of data (both structured and unstructured) from disparate data sources—work which links to expertise we have developed at Rensselaer.

In addition, I served on the U.S. Department of State International Security Advisory Board (2011-2017) and the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (2013-2017), where I co-chaired a study on the future of high performance computing, including data-centric, neuromorphic, and quantum computing.

My work in science, technology, and public policy puts me in the middle of academia, industry, and government partnerships. It draws on my theoretical, my public policy, and my leadership background. As President of a great university, and with my involvement in corporate boards, I am able to stay at the forefront of what is important in basic science and engineering, public policy, national and global economic vitality, and security. In short, I support exciting new discoveries and innovation, and the people doing it, while helping to solve global challenges and uplift lives, and continuing to grow intellectually.

In short, it has been quite a career for a theoretical elementary particle physicist!

Recently, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we welcomed the 13th United States Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz, to our 211th Commencement ceremony, where we awarded him an honorary degree. Secretary Moniz, also, is a theoretical physicist by training—as well as a brilliant policymaker and diplomat. Although theoretical physics is considered, by outsiders, to be one of the most abstract of all exercises of human intelligence—I would argue that it does, indeed, offer excellent training for leadership.

As a physicist, one develops an ability to look at systems that seem to be chaotic—not to impose order—but to figure out a way to understand their complexity. We physicists see beyond the individual phenomena, and try to find the principles that allow us to be both explanatory and predictive. Such an approach is valuable to problems not merely measurable in light-years or Planck lengths—but those of societal or global scale as well.

In fact, I would encourage the younger members of our audience today, deliberately to stray off the path you have set for yourself now and then, and accept a role outside of pure science, if it promises to offer you a valuable new perspective and a fuller context for your efforts. Please assume that you have the capacity to learn and to do a great deal, because you do!

My own story is but one small example of why big science at places such as Fermilab—and the public investments that allow it—are so important. Naturally, it is sometimes a struggle to convince our political leaders of the utility of basic research that does not aim for utility, but instead seeks to expand human understanding. As a nation, we used to be better than we are today at appreciating why places such as Fermilab are so important to our national life, and to our standing in the world.

The accomplishments of Fermilab extend well beyond the fundamental knowledge uncovered here—such as the detection of the first neutrino, the discoveries of the bottom quark and the top quark, or the discovery of a quasar at 27 billion light-years away, at the time the most distant object ever observed. But such discoveries are crucial. In a world in which we know so very much, and see so very far—yet cannot yet describe the dark matter and dark energy that make up 95% our cosmos—it is much too early for mankind to declare any kind of intellectual victory over nature.

Science of the kind done at Fermilab also is an enormous force encouraging international cooperation, and the wonderful relationships forged here yield important collaborations, cultural exchanges, and lifelong friendships.

Even more important is the fact that Fermilab has trained generations of young men and women at the absolute frontier of human understanding. Inevitably, some of these young people, emboldened by the experience of Fermilab, wind up moving beyond basic research, as I did, and advancing technologies, and policies, crucial to the national and global economy.

And, as we all know, while the fundamental aims of Fermilab have nothing to do with practical applications, the technologies required to explore elementary particles, and the cosmos, inevitably spur important breakthroughs in other fields, including…

  • advances in computation to manage the enormous amounts of data generated by the experiments here;
  • the invention of the World Wide Web at CERN;
  • new radiation therapies to treat cancer; and
  • the creation of a superconducting technology industry that could support a new medical diagnostic tool called magnetic resonance imaging.

My father always used to say to me: “Aim for the stars, so that you can reach the treetops, and, at least, you will get off the ground.”

In other words, if you do not aim high, you will not go far. This holds true for each us as individuals, and for all of us as a species. Fermilab represents the very highest aims of humanity, and it remains more crucial than ever that we continue to reach for the stars.

I am so very proud to once have been part of this great endeavor, and I thank all of you for allowing me to tell my story today.