Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Physics: The River That Runs Through It All

Category: National
August, 2021

AAPT Summer Virtual Meeting

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

I am so delighted to join the nation’s physics teachers today. It is a great honor to accept the Oersted Medal, and to be placed in the company of so many great physicists and contributors to physics education.

Today, I have been asked to speak about my own education as a physicist, and the ways that physics led me into government, corporate, and academic leadership roles. I also will offer my thoughts on the value of a physics-based education in helping the world to address its most complex challenges.

So, let me begin at the beginning. I was blessed to have wonderful parents. My mother, a social worker who loved literature, taught me and my siblings to read before kindergarten.

My father, a postal worker, who never had the opportunity to graduate from high school, was mathematically and mechanically gifted. He served in World War II, in a segregated Army unit. During the Normandy invasion, when the rudders of the amphibious vehicles bringing supplies and troops to shore kept breaking, he was able to improvise a repair — with a special splice that he created on the spot. For that, he received a Bronze Star. His technique was taught to the U.S. Army maintenance units throughout France, for the remainder of the conflict.

My parents encouraged my early interests in science. My father helped me and my siblings to build and to race go-karts. I learned a lot about the principles of mechanics and aerodynamics from this experience, and I quickly figured out that the skill of the go-kart driver was less important than the aerodynamic design of the vehicle.

I also would capture live bees, and keep them in Mason jars under our back porch. I observed how they behaved under different conditions — such as the relative amount of light and darkness they were exposed to during the day. Today, we would say that I was doing experiments in circadian biology. This is an important area of research, including at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, because disruptions in our circadian rhythms have many impacts on human health.

As a child, I also 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, D.C., 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. This sparked 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, which dovetailed with my own interests, and from which I benefited 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 college-level subjects.

I was valedictorian of my high school graduating class, and after this 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.

Many of my fellow students were unwelcoming, leaving me out of their study groups. More surprisingly, some of the professors were equally unwelcoming.

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. So, I chose the latter, and made physics my trade.

Fortunately, the MIT faculty also included Dr. Millie Dresselhaus, who was a tenured full professor in physics and electrical engineering. Dr. Dresselhaus often is referred to as “the queen of carbon science,” because of her seminal work on the properties of graphite. I had the privilege, as an undergraduate, of taking a graduate-level course in condensed matter physics that she taught. The subject matter was inspiring to me — as was Millie herself. She certainly understood what it meant to defy low expectations and to do brilliant work as a scientist despite the obstacles. She became a great mentor, champion, and friend — as she was to so many. The American Association of Physics Teachers recognized her with the Oersted Medal in 2008—the third woman to be so awarded in the history of the medal. It is a singular honor to follow in her footsteps.

When I was a senior at MIT and deciding where to attend graduate school, the University of Pennsylvania physics department, hoping to recruit me, invited me to visit in April of 1968. I fully intended to be a theoretical condensed matter physicist. 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 lead to his sharing a Nobel Prize in Physics with John Bardeen and Leon Cooper.

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.

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.

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, actively to 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. Although 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 assess a challenge as complex as the dearth of minorities at MIT, and find practical ways to address it — while excelling at theoretical physics — I became a trusted advisor to many organizations, and I was offered many more opportunities for leadership, including on the MIT Corporation — the institute board of trustees — where today I am a Life Member.

After obtaining my Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics, I was fortunate to gain a postdoctoral position at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. While there, I worked on a refinement of my thesis, which concerned a multi-peripheral model for single-particle inclusive interactions. I was able to develop an exact solution, to a mathematical formulation of the problem that I had developed, after understanding that certain kinds of symmetries inherent in the problem were Lie Group relevant. I published this work in Annals of Physics.

In my first year at Fermilab, I had the privilege of getting to know a fellow theorist, Dr. Mary K. Gaillard, who was visiting from CERN. She already had done impressive work on kaon decay. While at Fermilab, she and her collaborators correctly predicted the mass of the charm quark, and offered the first systematic consideration of how charm could be searched for by experimentalists.

She persuaded me to spend the next year working with her at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research).

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 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 the 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 was such 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 and Dr. Burton Richter independently discovered the J/psi particle and its component charm quark — work for which they would share the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics, and which confirmed Mary K.’s predictions.

After CERN, I returned to Fermilab to complete my second postdoctoral year. Jobs were hard to come by in high-energy physics — in theoretical physics, especially, as I was finishing my post doc. Nevertheless, a unique opportunity opened in my original field of interest — theoretical condensed matter physics.

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 the great Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He facilitated an introduction to Dr. T. Maurice Rice, the head of the theoretical physics department at Bell Labs, who invited me to the APS (American Physical Society) March meeting in Atlanta. After our discussion of my work and what I wanted to do, Dr. Rice invited me to deliver a colloquium at Bell Labs.

I described my work on neutrinos to Bell scientists, and strong interaction physics, 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 at Bell Labs. A year later, after I did some interesting work on layered transition metal systems, IBM invited me to talk about it, and immediately 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, the 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 charge-density waves in layered transition metal dichalcogenides, the polaronic aspects of electrons on the surface of liquid helium films, properties of two-dimensional diluted magnetic semiconductor 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 a new director for PSEG, or the 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. My work on the APS Governing Council and the AIP Executive Committee benefitted me greatly in this endeavor. 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 businesspeople and government leaders. Two governors subsequent to Governor Kean also tapped me for unpaid advisory roles — also important enough to require State Senate confirmation.

Now, we can 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 the civilian use of nuclear reactors, nuclear materials, spent nuclear fuel, and nuclear wastes. However, given my scientific background, my APS and AIP service, my government service in New Jersey, and my 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.

Nonetheless, the Chairmanship of the NRC played to my strengths as an elementary particle theorist. I certainly understood the nuclear physics, the nuclear technology, the associated public policy, and I could work through the complexities of the markets and geopolitical 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 remains the NRC planning and budgeting approach today.

We also put in place the first license renewal process to extend the operating lives 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 arena persists to this day.

My tenure at the NRC also coincided with the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the initial aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union. The weapons-grade enriched uranium of the Soviet nuclear programs was now poorly controlled in the newly independent states, as well as in Russia. Moreover, many of the newly independent states were left with Chernobyl-design reactors, without having the full design basis documentation of the plants. The post-apartheid South African government did not have the expertise needed to oversee the nuclear facilities and programs it inherited.

I became very involved in international efforts at the highest levels to promote nuclear safety and nuclear non-proliferation, representing the U.S. government on two bilateral commissions: the Gore-Chernomyrdin (U.S.-Russian Federation) Commission on Scientific and Economic Cooperation, and the Gore-Mbeki (U.S.-South Africa) Commission. The NRC helped to develop nuclear safety frameworks — with associated regulation development and inspector training — in both the Newly Independent States and South Africa. The NRC also worked with other U.S. government agencies to secure the nuclear weapons grade uranium in the Newly Independent States.

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 the future. So, I spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association as a high-level forum for chief nuclear regulators, in order 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, from 1997 to 1999.

The NRC also advocated 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 after I took office at the NRC, another unforeseen opportunity arose, and another decision. I was asked, by its Board of Trustees, to assume the Presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The Board was looking for a change agent after an unsettled period during which Rensselaer had five presidents in 14 years.

With the experience I had garnered in government and in business, as well as in academia, 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.

My initial vision for shaping Rensselaer was captured in an ambitious strategic effort known as The Rensselaer Plan.

The Plan was designed to prepare 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 succeeded in that, and in so doing, we have expanded and strengthened our graduate programs.

We transformed our Troy campus by building 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. Since 1999, more than $1.4 billion has been invested in The Rensselaer Plan.

We have hired over 450 tenured and tenure-track faculty members, and have tripled sponsored research awards and expenditures. Our world-class faculty now includes members of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors; many fellows of technical and professional societies; and numerous recipients of national and international awards.

We have expanded our curriculum into emerging fields — with many top-ranked programs — including in IT and Web Science, Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, Biochemistry and Biophysics, and a technology-inflected B.S. degree in Music.

We also have increased scholarships, grown undergraduate research, and led bold innovations in student life, including the award-winning First-Year Experience and Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students (CLASS).

As a result, we have more than tripled applications to our freshman class.

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 even more transformative in the global impact of its research, pedagogy, and in the lives of its students.

We truly do work on the hard problems at Rensselaer: the greatest challenges of humanity in energy, water, and food security; in climate change and the need for sustainable infrastructure and materials; in national and global security; in human health; and in the allocation of scarce natural resources.

We do all this work within a vision we term The New Polytechnic. As The New Polytechnic, we lead by serving as a great crossroads for talented people across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations — collaborating to address the most complex challenges, and enabled by the most advanced tools and technologies.

The education we offer reflects this multidisciplinarity. As one among many examples, a few years ago, we instituted a first-in-the-nation “data dexterity” requirement, ensuring that every undergraduate is prepared to apply analytics to diverse datasets to solve complex problems in their particular fields.

At the same time as I began this transformation of Rensselaer, I kept my fingers on the pulse of industry by serving on the boards of leading corporations, including IBM, FedEx, Public Service Enterprise Group, Medtronic, and the New York Stock Exchange. I also served on the boards of leading nonprofits and associations, including the World Economic Forum USA, 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 Chair of the Board.

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 five 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 important initiatives and programs across the government — as well as industry-university-government partnerships in key new technologies to undergird advanced manufacturing.

In 2014, President Obama asked me 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. To support our national intelligence activities, I advocated for stronger analytical approaches to the assessment of data — both structured and unstructured — from disparate data sources — work which links to expertise we have developed at Rensselaer in what we term DAIC: data, artificial intelligence, and computation.

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, where I co-chaired a study on the future of high performance computing, including data-centric, neuromorphic, and quantum computing.

New windows continue to open in my career, and in 2019, The Nature Conservancy asked me to serve on its global board, to help it address the very greatest of challenges facing the planet Earth.

Each role that I have had has informed the others — helping me to lead Rensselaer with perspectives gained from multiple realms. And I have had the great privilege of continuing to grow professionally and intellectually. In short, it has been quite a career for a theoretical elementary particle physicist!

The one note of disappointment — one I am sure that I share with almost every member of the American Association of Physics Teachers — is the fact that relatively few women and minorities have followed the paths we have blazed into the field of physics.

Without question, when I was studying physics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, women physicists and African American physicists were a rarity. It makes very little sense that they remain a rarity, half a century later — especially given the remarkable opportunities that an education in physics affords.

Among the physical sciences, physics has the lowest share of women degree recipients — with just 21% of bachelor’s degrees and 21% of doctorates awarded to women. African Americans earn just 5% of bachelor’s degrees in the Earth and physical sciences.

The fields of computer science and engineering — to name two more fields essential to the nation’s economy and security — also do not attract women and minorities in sufficient numbers. Together, women and minorities are the overwhelming majority of American students. If they are not welcomed into the physical sciences, computer sciences, and engineering, the United States is handicapping itself economically and geopolitically.

It is a great advantage to the United States that we attract so many talented students from abroad, many of whom historically have remained here after their advanced training; and a number of them still wish to do so. We need to continue to welcome and retain them.

We need to develop the full complement of talent — both homegrown and foreign born — or we will face what I have termed a “Quiet Crisis.” It is quiet because it takes years to educate a scientist or engineer. When a shortfall appears, it is a crisis. That is what we face today.

We are an innovative country and economy, but there is no innovation without innovators. With no innovators, we diminish our global leadership.

I have a few observations to share about identifying and developing the full complement of talent, arising from my own experience as a student, and as an educator.

Unlike the MIT professor I mentioned earlier, who thought that because of my gender and race, I should be aiming low — my parents and my teachers in the public schools of Washington, D.C., made no such assumptions about my limits. I am very fortunate that, instead, they recognized my talent and how driven I was to excel, and encouraged me.

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 urge all of you to encourage all your students — from all backgrounds — to aim high. And, for those students who are not sure that they belong even in the treetops — I encourage you to prove to them that they are capable of doing the work to get there, and to excel there.

At Rensselaer, for example, we have wonderful women professors in computer science, who make a point, in their introductory classes, of showing young women that even if they did not grow up gaming and coding — as many of the young men did — that they can quickly catch up and succeed.

In the same vein, a new program called the National Education Equity Lab enrolls high school students from high-poverty schools — overwhelmingly, students of color — in online credit-bearing courses from elite universities. The program is finding that 86 percent of these high schoolers are passing their Ivy League classes.

Talent is everywhere, and when students are offered sufficiently challenging and stimulating material — and the compliment of a teacher’s belief in their abilities — they will rise to the occasion.

At Rensselaer, we have an informal motto: “Why not change the world?” That is a challenge to our students, and an expression of faith in them. It also suggests the underlying excitement of the education they are gaining — that it may prove transformative to the world at large.

I mentioned earlier that I became a physicist at a particularly exciting moment in the field. We seem to be at another, as the tools we use for exploration grow ever more sophisticated. With the first direct detection of gravitational waves in 2015 — arising from the merger of binary black holes — a new way to conduct astronomy opened up. The recent apparent discovery of a water-laden exoplanet is very exciting. In my own field of condensed matter physics, room-temperature superconductivity was achieved for the first time last year, albeit under extremely high pressure. In particle physics, an experiment at Fermilab has added to the evidence that a particle named muon may not comport itself in line with theoretical predictions — possibly because it is interacting with undiscovered particles or forces not accounted for in the Standard Model.

It is up to all of us, as physics teachers, to convey the excitement of discovery and innovation to our students. This is so crucial, because physics and physics-based education is foundational to humanity’s ability to understand our world and the universe, and to address complex challenges — whether in medicine, climate, energy, communications, or national and global security — whether such challenges are addressed individually or in collaborations across the disciplines.

And, as we consider such collaborations, I must add that I often am struck by the degree to which the study of physics is excellent training for leadership. Among the leaders we have welcomed at Rensselaer in recent years and awarded honorary degrees are Dr. Ash Carter, the 25th United States Secretary of Defense; Dr. Ernie Moniz, the 13th United States Secretary of Energy; and Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. They all are theoretical physicists by training — as well as brilliant strategists, diplomats, and policymakers.

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 parsecs or Planck lengths — but those of societal or global scale as well.

The world needs more physicists! So, it is a great honor to join all of you — and to express my gratitude for all that you do to equip the next generation with the mathematical tools, the curiosity, and the creativity to expand human ingenuity and our understanding of nature, and to lift us toward the stars.

The Oersted Medal, as you know, was established to recognize notable contributions to the teaching of physics. My way of teaching physics, which I literally did do earlier in my career, has been to educate others in physics and related subjects, and to use my physics background in important educational leadership roles, and in public policy arenas that are of importance nationally and globally. I thank my husband, son, sisters, friends, colleagues, and my staff for the great support they have given me throughout my career.

I thank all of you for listening to my story. I especially thank you for this very great honor.