Shirley Ann Jackson (American physicist)

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Shirley Ann Jackson 1946

Physicist, government official

Bumblebees, Go-Karts, and Particle Physics

Became Shirley the Great

The Politics of Nuclear Power


Shirley the Great. Thats what Shirley Ann Jackson, age 4, declared to her mother she would someday be called. But, as Vice President Al Gore described in May of 1995 at Jacksons swearing-in ceremony for chairman of the nations Nuclear Regulatory Commission, little Shirley was too young in 1950 to know the obstacles that could hinder even a smart and ambitious little black girl. D.C. schools were still segregated, Gore said of the scenario for the Washington native in those years. Theres a wonderful school a few blocks away, but Shirley isnt allowed to walk through the doors. And even at the high school level in Washington, the schools lack the small classes and modern labs that a budding scientist become Shirley the Great.

Fortunately, two historic events intervened to help Jackson rise to the top of her field and become the first African American woman to receive a doctoral degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to be named a commissioner of the NRC. One was the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, of 1954, which mandated the integration of schools. The second was the Soviet launch of Sputnika wakeup call to the U.S. government to start helping American scientists catch up.

Suddenly, Shirley the Great seemed more than possible. Suddenly, the outlook was dramatically improved for young Americans interested in and talented in science, whether male or female, white or black. And Jackson had the drive to succeed. Its not every American, after all, whos smart enough to figure out what makes a nuclear power plant tick and then deal with the complicated politics of selling that energy source to a frightened public.

Bumblebees, Go-Karts, and Particle Physics

She was born in Washington, D.C., on August 5, 1946, and grew up in the citys northwest district. The second daughter of Beatrice and George Jackson; her mother was a social worker, her father a postal worker. Early on, she showed a gift for science and was encouraged by her father, who got involved with her science projects,

At a Glance

Born Shirley Ann Jackson, August 5, 1946, in Washington, DC; daughter of Beatrice and George Jackson; married to Dr. Morris A. Washington; one son, Alan. Education : physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1968, Ph.D. in physics, MIT, 1973; postdoctoral education at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL. and European Center for Nuclear Research, Geneva, Switzerland.

Career: Condensed matter theorist and other positions, AT&T Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, N.J, 1976-91; consultant, semiconductor theory, Bell Labs, 1991-95; physics professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. 1991-95; commissioner and chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, May 1995-.

Directorships: NJ. Resources Corp., Public Service Enterprise Group, Sealed Air Corp, Corestates New Jersey National Bank, CoreStates Financial Corp.

Selected honors: First African American woman awarded the Ph.D. in any subject from MIT; first African-American to become a commissioner of the NRC; fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; fellow of the American Physical Society; life member of the MIT Board of Trustees 1992; former member of an advisory council to the secretary of energy former member of research councils of the National Academy of Sciences and Advisory Council of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations; recipient, Governors Award (Thomas Alva Edison Science Award) of the State of New Jersey, 1993; Honorary Doctor of Science, Fairleigh Dickinson, NJ, 1993; recipient of scholarships and fellowships from Ford Foundation, Martin Marietta Corp., National Science Foundation, and others.

Addresses: Office c/o U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C. 20555.

even the one involving live bumblebees that Shirley fed with sugar and collected in 30 jars jammed into the basement crawl space. Jackson told The Washington Post of her recollection of building soapbox go-karts with her sister, Gloria, and how this fed into her lifelong interest in how things work. She also described how both her parents believed strongly in education and how this factortogether with an accelerated program in mathematics and science at Roosevelt High Schoolhelped prepare her for the intellectual rigors ahead.

There were emotional rigors, as well, considering the proximity of Barnard, the excellent school to which Vice President Gore referred, just three blocks from Jacksons childhood home in the then-predominantly white Petworth area. But Shirley was black, so she and Gloria had to be driven miles across town to a black school. Despite this discrimination, I had a good educational experience in Washington, Jackson told The Post. I had a supportive community and family. She was also a straight-A student at Roosevelt and valedictorian of her Class of 1964. Then, she left for college at MIT, still a rare destination for a black woman at that point, the height of the civil rights struggle. As Jackson said, The biggest challenges were more after I left Washington.

In 1964 she was one of 45 women and a handful of African Americans in her 900-member freshman class. Jackson was unprepared for the loneliness, she told Science magazine. The irony is that the white girls werent particularly working with me, either, she said. The white women even refused to sit at the same cafeteria table with her and made it clear they didnt want her in their study groups. I had to work alone, Jackson said. I went through a down period, but at some level you have to decide you will persist in what youre doing and that you wont let people beat you down.

Rising above the social isolation, Jackson delved more and more into the scientific world she loved, discovering a particular niche in materials science. She thrived academically and upon her graduation in 1968, she was offered fellowship support to stay on for her Ph.D. in physics. Her specialization was theoretical elementary particle physics, and her graduate work was directed by James Young, the first full-time tenured black professor in the Physics department. She received her advanced degree in 1973, the first black woman at MIT to realize that goal in any academic category. But science was hardly Jacksons only interest, keenly aware of her own position as an African American, she lobbied MIT to admit more minorities and tutored at the YMCA in Bostons black neighborhood of Roxbury.

Became Shirley the Great

From graduate school, she moved on to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, and the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland, for postdoctoral stints, working on theories of strongly interacting elementary particles. As she told Science about this time in her life, she simply got used to being one of the few women and blacks at meetings. If you give a physics paper, it had better be goodbecause people will remember, she said.

In 1976 she accepted a job at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., where she combined her interest in theoretical particle physics with her employers interest: gas, films, and semiconductors. She has admitted to Science that she was pretty much of a loner in the research world. But despite this aura, she still attracted the notice of another young physicist, Morris A. Washington, whom she later married. The couple have a son, Alan.

Jackson stayed at Bell Labs until 1991, when she reentered the academic world as a professor of physics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I wanted to have graduate students, to build my own research groups, she told Science. Her career star was already rising: From the mid-1960s to through the late-1970s, she received no less than ten scholarships, fellowships, and grants from sources such as Martin Marietta Co., the National Science Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. She also studied at the International School of Subnuclear Physics in Erice, Sicily, and the Ecole dete de Physique Theorique in Les Houches, France.

In 1985, Jackson entered the public affairs realm with her appointment by then-governor of New Jersey Thomas Kean to the N.J. Commission on Science and Technology. She was re-appointed and confirmed for a five-year term in 1989. She also served on committees of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Science Foundation. And she published over a hundred scientific articles and abstracts. At each step, she promoted not just science, but the advancement of women in the field.

Corporate participation followed in the 1980s. She was invited onto the boards of the Public Service Enterprise Group in New Jersey, the N.J. Resources Corp., and Core States/New Jersey National Bank. She also served on an advisory panel to the Secretary of Energy examining the future of Department of Energy national laboratories and on a variety of research councils of the National Academy of Sciences and the Advisory Council of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.

All of these appointments, of course, served Jackson well for the high honor to come. But the honor she has said gave her particular satisfaction was her election in June 1991after 15 years as a term memberto life membership on the board of trustees of MIT. Thus, she became the ultimate insider at the same institution where once she had been a lonely female minority student on the outside looking in.

The Politics of Nuclear Power

When President Bill Clinton nominated Jackson to the chairmanship of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1995, she inherited far more than just an agency (located in Rockville, MD) with 3,000 employees and a $500 million annual budget; she also took on the job of regulating the safety of the United States aging 110 nuclear power plants and of tackling the touchy politics of extending those plant licenses. In her lap was laid the twin dilemmas of mounting nuclear waste and the plants dwindling storage space.

And all of this was occurring in 1995the year of her appointmentjust nine years after the Chernobyl nuclear power disaster in Russia that had ended or damaged thousands of lives and threatened, via the long-term effects of radiation poisoning, to claim many more. In fact, The World Health Organization reported in 1995 that thyroid cancer among children had increased 100 percent in areas exposed to Chernobyls fallout.

Whats more, Chernobyl, so far away, was hardly the only concern. Americans were not about to forget the near-miss at Three Mile Island in 1979. And there were other, nuclear-related events in 1995: Environmental guerillas set up camp in the Mojave Desert at the site of a proposed nuclear waste dump saying it threatened Southern Californias water. Joseph Rotblat, the British antinuclear activist, accepted the Nobel Prize, warning the worlds scientists that they were responsible for spurning doomsday programs and exposing plans for weaponry. The NRC ordered Maines Yankee power plant to reduce its power because it wasnt clear whether the plant could withstand even a small water leak in its cooling system. Federal regulators began investigating an incident at the Hope Creek power plant, where cooling water was misdirected for 19 hours before anyone noticed. And South Carolina Governor David Beasley reopened the Barnwell County, S.C., nuclear dump, underscoring the failed efforts of 15 years to make the Southern states join a federal compact for disposal of their nuclear waste.

This was the hot political environment Jackson entered in 1995. She responded with her usual directness and zeal. Days after taking office, The Energy Daily newsletter reported, she set off for the Tennessee Valley Authority to spend three days climbing ladders and exploring the internal workings of TVAs units. I did climb around, looking at reactor cores really close up, Jackson told the newsletter. Her conclusion? Hal is not running the plants, she said mischievouslyreferring to the evil computer in 2001: A Space OdysseyIts humans.

That was the virtue of [the tour]. It helped put things into context-up close and personal. Jackson planned to visit every operating reactor during her five-year tenure, Energy Daily reported. One should visit ones licensees, Jackson said. I think when you go into the plants, one gets a sense of.. .the culture...what we used to call, when I was a student, the vibles. The newsletter continued: Jackson, 48, comes across as tough, smart and nonsense.

And these were perhaps just the qualities she needed to deal with the controversy that erupted anew over nuclear power from the Time magazine cover story of March 4, 1996. The headline was Blowing the Whistle on Nuclear Safety: How a showdown at a power plant exposed the federal governments failure to enforce its own rules. The story concerned Northeast Utilities five power plants in New England, particularly Millstone Unit 1 in Waterford, CT. Engineers George Galatis and George Betancourt, blew the whistle to the NRC after two years of internal lobbying, with no success, against a major safety problem: Millstone was off-loading its full core. This meant that every 18 months when the reactor was shut down so fuel rods could be replaced, the old rods, still radioactive, were improperly placed in the requisite cooling pool all at once. In fact, federal guidelines require older plants like Millstone to move only one third of the rods into the pool. But Millstones administrators wanted to save time and money.

Times investigation and a report of the NRCs inspector general found that not only had the agency known of this violation and dangerous practice but that it had been going on for 20 years and that Millstone I had been issued waiver after waiver by the NRC. The agency completely failed, NRC acting Inspector General Leo Norton told Time. We did shoddy work. And were concerned that similar lapses might be occurring at other plants around the country.

Jackson, as NRC chairman, went into overdrive to protect her agency. She ordered the agencys second whistle-blower study in two years and a nationwide review of all 110 plants to discover how many had been moving fuel in violation of standards. At a press conference on March 8, 1996, she told reporters: For whatever else may be said about the article, it pointed to areas for improvementtechnical, managerial, and legalon the part of both the utility involved and the NRC. The fact that we already knew about the problems and were dealing with them is not a sufficient answer; they should not have occurred in the first place. In a letter to Time, however, she dismissed any suggestion that the Millstone situation borders on an impending Chernobyl-type disaster.

Nonetheless, the NRC, under Jacksons direction, shut down all three Millstone plants. And the public waited for the NRC report. It was a moment both positive and negative for Jackson: negative because she faced a major crisis for the agency she headed, but also positive because during all the hubbub, no one seemed to be noticing any more that she was black or female or anything else besides a highly respected scientist with a big political football in her hands.



Nuclear Warriors, Time magazine, March 4, 1996, p. 46.

New NRC Chairman Targes License Extension As Top Priority, The Energy Daily, August 22, 1995.

Women in Science 93Gaining Standingby Standing Out, Science, April 16, 1993, p. 392.

Equation for Success, The Washington Post, p. B13.


Transcript of Shirley Ann Jackson press conference at Nuclear Regulatory Commission, April 9, 1996.

Biographical materials and resume supplied by Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Transcript of Vice President Al Gores Remarks at Swearing-in of Shirley Ann Jackson, White House Press Office, May 26, 1995.

Joan Oleck

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Shirley Ann Jackson

Shirley Ann Jackson (born 1946), a theoretical physicist, was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. at MIT. In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed her as chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. During her tenure, Jackson has instituted massive crackdowns on the nuclear power industry's violations.

Shirley Ann Jackson is a theoretical physicist who has spent her career researching and teaching about particle physics —the branch of physics which uses theories and mathematics to predict the existence of subatomic particles and the forces that bind them together. She was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and she spent many years conducting research at AT & T Bell Laboratories. She was named professor of physics at Rutgers University in 1991 and is the recipient of many honors, scholarships, and grants.

Jackson was born on August 5, 1946, in Washington, DC. Her parents, Beatrice and George Jackson, strongly valued education and encouraged her in school. Her father spurred on her interest in science by helping her with projects for her science classes. At Roosevelt High School, Jackson attended accelerated programs in both math and science, and she graduated in 1964 as valedictorian. Jackson began classes at MIT that same year, one of fewer than twenty African American students and the only one studying theoretical physics. While a student she did volunteer work at Boston City Hospital and tutored students at the Roxbury YMCA. She earned her bachelors degree in 1968, writing her thesis on solid-state physics, a subject then in the forefront of theoretical physics.

Although accepted at Brown, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, Jackson decided to stay at MIT for her doctoral work, because she wanted to encourage more African American students to attend the institution. She worked on elementary particle theory for her Ph.D., which she completed in 1973. Her research was directed by James Young, the first African American tenured full professor in MIT's physics department. Jackson's thesis, "The Study of a Multiperipheral Model with Continued Cross-Channel Unitarity," was subsequently published in the Annals of Physics in 1975.

Jackson's area of interest in physics is the study of the subatomic particles found within atoms, the tiny units of which all matter is made. Subatomic particles, which are usually very unstable and short-lived, can be studied in several ways. One method is using a particle accelerator, a device in which nuclei are accelerated to high speeds and then collided with a target to separate them into subatomic particles. Another way of studying them is by detecting their movements using certain kinds of nonconducting solids. When some solids are exposed to high-energy particles, the crystal lattice structure of the atoms is distorted, and this phenomenon leaves marks or tracks that can be seen with an electron microscope. Photographs of the tracks are then enhanced, and by examining these photographs physicists like Jackson can make predictions about what kinds of particles have caused the marks.

As a postdoctoral student of subatomic particles during the 1970s, Jackson studied and conducted research at a number of prestigious physics laboratories in both the United States and Europe. Her first position was as research associate at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois (known as Fermilab) where she studied hadrons—medium to large subatomic particles that include baryons and mesons. In 1974 she became visiting scientist at the accelerator lab at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. There she explored theories of strongly interacting elementary particles. In 1976 and 1977, she both lectured in physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and became a visiting scientist at the Aspen Center for Physics.

Jackson joined the Theoretical Physics Research Department at AT & T Bell Laboratories in 1976. The research projects at this facility are designed to examine the properties of various materials in an effort to discover useful applications. In 1978, Jackson became part of the Scattering and Low Energy Physics Research Department, then in 1988 she moved to the Solid State and Quantum Physics Research Department. At Bell Labs, Jackson explored theories of charge density waves and the reactions of neutrinos, one type of subatomic particle. In her research, Jackson has made contributions to the knowledge of such areas as charged density waves in layered compounds, polaronic aspects of electrons in the surface of liquid helium films, and optical and electronic properties of semiconductor strained-layer superlattices. On these topics and others she has prepared or collaborated on over 100 scientific articles.

Jackson has received many scholarships, including the Martin Marietta Aircraft Company Scholarship and Fellowship, the Prince Hall Masons Scholarship, the National Science Foundation Traineeship, and a Ford Foundation Advanced Study Fellowship. She has been elected to the American Physical Society and selected a CIBA-GEIGY Exceptional Black Scientist. In 1985, Governor Thomas Kean appointed her to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. Then in the early 1990s, Governor James Florio awarded her the Thomas Alva Edison Science Award for her contributions to physics and for the promotion of science. Jackson is an active voice in numerous committees of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Science Foundation, where her aim has been to actively promote women in science. Her most recent assignment came in 1995, when she was appointed head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by President Bill Clinton.

Jackson is very involved in university life at Rutgers University, where in addition to being professor of physics she is also on the board of trustees. She is a lifetime member of the MIT Board of Trustees and was formerly a trustee of Lincoln University. She is also involved in civic organizations that promote community resources and developing enterprises. She is married and has one son.

Further Reading

Carwell, Hattie, Blacks in Science: Astrophysicist to Zoologist, Exposition Press, 1977, p. 60.

Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992, pp. 565-566.

Blacks in Science and Medicine, Hemisphere, 1990, p. 130. □

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Shirley Ann Jackson


American physicist who was the first African-American woman to earn a physics doctorate. Jackson graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She conducted research at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. In 1976 Jackson accepted a Rutgers University professorship and also served as a consultant for AT&T Bell Laboratories concerning semiconductor theory. She was named chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1995 to supervise atomic energy resources. Four years later, Jackson was selected president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.