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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at MIT 50th Reunion Classmate Speaking Program

Category: National
June, 2018
Kirsch Auditorium, Stata Center, MIT

MIT 50th Reunion Classmate Speaking Program

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

I am delighted to be here for the 50th Reunion of the MIT Class of 1968. To a great extent, I am discovering my classmates at this reunion, rather than re-discovering them.

When I attended MIT, women were not in the forefront here—our entering class was 95% male. The rest of us, well, we were known as "Tech co-eds," and we did not feel entirely part of the grand traditions of MIT. And as one of just two African American women in the class, I was truly separate from the mainstream here.

While youth is wonderful, age has its compensations.  When we were young, many of us were very conscious of our differences. Today, it is readily apparent how much all of us have in common—this class in which three out of four of us STILL own a slide rule, and on a scale of 1 to 5, when we rate how much happiness our careers have brought us, nearly 90% of us say a full 4 or 5.

MIT was wonderful preparation for a meaningful life and career, and I truly am honored to have been asked today to sum up mine for you.

I will start at the beginning: how I got to MIT.

I had wonderful parents, who emphasized education and the value of hard work. My mother taught my siblings and me to read before we went to kindergarten.  My father, who was not a high school graduate, was mathematically and mechanically gifted; and encouraged my interests in science and mathematics. My father was at Normandy on D-Day, in a segregated army unit. Many of the amphibious landing vehicles, ferrying troops to shore, lost their rudders. Using scrap metal and broken cables, my father fashioned a special splice to create new ruddering mechanisms for these boats. For this, he received a Bronze Star. It was my father who suggested, and encouraged me to attend, MIT.

All of us in the Class of 1968 grew up at a particularly turbulent moment in the history of our nation, but I was a great beneficiary of some of those upheavals.  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.

The second event occurred two years later, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, which made policymakers fear that the United States might be losing the Cold War—and which spurred a new emphasis on mathematics and science in the public schools.  This offered me—and many, many of you, as well—an opportunity to excel.

I was tested, and then placed in an accelerated honors academic program in the seventh grade, and when it became apparent that I would be valedictorian of my high school graduating class, it was not the girls' high school guidance counselor who encouraged me to apply to MIT, but my father, and the boys' counselor.

I must admit, my undergraduate experience at MIT was somewhat cold and unwelcoming, although I excelled academically.  When I was considering majoring in physics, I sought out a distinguished professor for advice.  He told me, "Colored girls should learn a trade."

I was shocked and hurt by his low expectations for me, especially since I had the highest grades in his class. 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, and made physics my trade.

When I was a senior at MIT, deciding where to attend graduate school, the University of Pennsylvania Physics Department, which had admitted me to its doctoral program, invited me to visit in April of 1968. I fully intended to be a theoretical condensed matter physicist, and I was very interested in the work of Dr. John Robert Schrieffer, who was at Penn, and whose contributions to the BCS Theory of superconductivity would soon earn him a Nobel Prize.

As I was leaving Penn after the visit, however, 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 felt that I would have the greatest possible opportunity to change things for the better. And, given MIT’s stature in science and engineering, to change MIT, was to change the world.

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.

In the fall of 1968, a group of like-minded students and I formed the Black Students' Union, and we presented a series of demands to the MIT administration—though we were diplomatic enough to call them "proposals." Provost Paul Gray, who later became President, 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, faculty, and staff in significant numbers. It also initiated a six-week summer program, called Project Interphase, that helped incoming minority freshmen to prepare for the rigors and the culture of MIT. 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 here—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.

Today, I am a Life Member of the MIT Corporation, and, as I am sure you have noticed, MIT looks very different than it did in 1964: 46% of the undergraduates are women, and over 20% belong to an underrepresented minority.

I am proud to have contributed to that sea change as a young woman—while also excelling in theoretical elementary particle physics.

My doctoral thesis concerned a multi-peripheral model for many particle scattering: I did numerical limit studies, converting a one-particle inclusive reaction into a three-body problem, using certain conservation laws.

After obtaining my Ph.D., I accepted a postdoctoral position at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where I was able to develop an exact solution for the problem posed in my thesis, 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 there, I had the privilege of getting to know a fellow theorist, Dr. Mary K. Gaillard, who was visiting from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (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 living 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, an MIT professor, 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, when a practical reality intruded. 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. And, another door opened.

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 (now an MIT professor) 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 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.

Second, I was asked by New Jersey Governor Tom Kean to join the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, as a founding member. The position was unpaid, but required State Senate confirmation. The Commission created partnerships among industry, government, and academia—through investments in the State’s public and private research universities—in disciplines important to the New Jersey economy, such as advanced biotechnology and medicine. 

Two governors subsequent to Governor Kean also tapped me for unpaid advisory roles—one of which also required 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. That soon changed. After I interviewed for a spot as one of five commissioners of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), 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.

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—as well as a planning, budgeting, and performance management system (PBPM), which is 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 risk-informed, performance-based regulation—an approach to regulation at the NRC that used probabilistic risk assessment (PRA) and focused performance assessment on a consistent basis, which persists in nuclear regulation to this day. The risk-informed approach also influenced the nuclear codes and standards of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

I also had to make hard decisions, such as having the Commission shut down (for two and a half years) the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant—in order to fix long-standing equipment and operational problems, and to create a safety-conscious work environment. There was controversy on all sides during this period and significant national and local press—which the Commission had to carefully work through. 

After meeting, early in my tenure at the NRC, with my senior nuclear regulatory counterparts from around the world, I saw another window of opportunity: the need for even greater international cooperation to avoid disasters such as Chernobyl, in the future. So, I spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA) 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. Through the INRA, and the NRC directly, work was done with the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union to reconstruct the design basis of their nuclear plants, apply PRA to enhance their safety envelopes (these were RBMK-Chernobyl style reactors), write basic nuclear regulations, and train nuclear inspectors at the NRC. A similar set of activities was implemented in South Africa, to help the post-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) government to oversee their research reactors. I was elected the first Chairman of the INRA. I also served on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission (Russia) and the Gore-Mbeki Commission (South Africa).

At the NRC, we 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 great technological research university, I felt 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 designed and built much of the early, and current, physical and digital infrastructure of the United States—but in 1999, it was not living up to its full potential.

I promised the Rensselaer community that, together, we would develop a Rensselaer Plan that would steer our choices, and allow us to choose excellence. Guided by the Rensselaer Plan, later refreshed as the Rensselaer Plan 2024, we put into place the people, programs, platforms, and partnerships that elevated our profile as a major technological research university, and strengthened our undergraduate and graduate curricula—with new degree programs and new academic concentrations, and research of fundamental significance in the 21st century in:

  • computational science and engineering;
  • biotechnology and the life sciences;
  • nanotechnology and advanced materials;
  • energy, the environment, and smart systems; and
  • media, the arts, science, and technology.

As a result, many of our programs today are top-ranked, the number of students applying to join our freshman class has quadrupled, and sponsored research awards and expenditures have tripled.  

In taking on the Presidency of Rensselaer, I nonetheless have kept my fingers on the pulse of industry by serving on the boards of leading corporations, including IBM, FedEX, Medtronic, and PSEG; 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 President and as Chairman.

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. From 2014 to 2017, I served as co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), which assessed issues pertaining to the quality, quantity, and adequacy of United States intelligence activities. In addition, I served on the U.S. Department of State International Security Advisory Board from 2011 to 2017 and the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board from 2013 to 2017.

Earlier, 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, which I did.

People sometimes ask me, "How can you do so much?"

I always answer, "How could I not?"

I am not alone in this view. In 2017, 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, a former MIT professor, department head, and research leader—as well as a brilliant policymaker and diplomat, who played a key role in the negotiating the Iran nuclear agreement.

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.

My various roles have put me in the middle of academic, industry, and government partnerships. I am able to stay at the very forefront of what is important in basic science and engineering, public policy, national and global economic vitality, and national and global security. I am able to support exciting new discoveries and innovations, and the people generating them, while helping to solve global challenges in ways that uplift lives—all while continuing to grow intellectually and spiritually; and being recognized for the work I have done—with the greatest honor of my career being awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama in 2016.   

I could not have done all that I have had the opportunity to do without the support and encouragement of "the wind beneath my wings"—my husband, Dr. Morris Washington—himself a physicist, our son, Alan, my sisters, and my parents (now gone). I have been blessed in my life with good health, and the opportunity to step through my window in time.

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.

I am grateful to MIT (although it was challenging), and my extremely talented classmates, for setting a high bar and extending my reach, which set me on the path to the wonderful life and career I have had. 

I thank you for listening to my story, and now I would be delighted to answer any questions.