Shirley Ann Jackson is the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute. A theoretical physicist, she has been described by Time magazine as "perhaps the ultimate role
model for women in science." She was the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973, and has served as a professor of theoretical physics at Rutgers University and as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 2007 the National Science Board awarded her the Vannevar
Bush Award for "a lifetime of achievements in scientific research,
education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy." Jackson also serves on the boards of a number of companies and organizations, including the New York Stock Exchange, IBM, FedEx, Marathon Oil, and the Smithsonian Institution.
Question: What inspired you to become a scientist?
Shirley Ann Jackson: Well, as I was growing up, I was always
interested in math and always interested in the world around me; natural
phenomena. That tended to express itself in being interested in things
and nature so I would collect live bumblebees and do experiments with
them that related to changing their diets, their habitats, the amount of
sunlight and darkness they were exposed to. Then I would add in wasps
and yellowjackets and I’d try to understand how the different species
behaved; levels of aggression, what changed with diet. And I’d keep very
detailed notebooks. And then I’d keep them in jars lined up under our
back porch, we had a crawlspace.
But as I went along, I got
more and more interested on the mathematics side and things that related
to the physical world. Although, I really didn’t decide to become a
physicist until I was a freshman in college.
can we do to encourage more young people to go into the sciences?
Shirley Ann Jackson: One, I think we can just introduce
young people early on to the wonders and the beauty of science, and its
ability to help them understand things to explain things to do hands on
as well as minds on kinds of activities early on. To build that both
formally into the curricula in K-through-12 education; but also outside
of classroom experiences including making use of more community-based
resources like museums and the like.
We have to excite them,
that’s the point. We have to excite them about the wonders of the
natural world. We have to invite them by letting them know that they,
too, can become scientists or engineers or work in these fields or at
least have an understanding of what science is and what it does. But
also have people understand that there are interesting pathways and good
ones today for careers and that they get to work on really cool stuff
and really important things. And I think all of these are the ways.
But then, if we want to go beyond that to look at more structural
issues, the single most important rate-limiting step has to do with
having good teachers. Because a good teacher makes all the difference
in a young person’s life.
And so we have to, then, have teachers
who are well-prepared. Who, if they were not education in the sciences
and engineering, have professional development programs that can bring
them more up to speed on these things? We have to have more degreed
teachers—teachers with actual degrees in science, mathematics and
engineering. And so really having good teachers, well prepared teachers
and we should hold up the best examples. The best teachers and what
they do and have more testimony to that affect. But then the media has a
role in terms of how scientists and engineers and mathematicians are
portrayed. And the scientists and engineers and mathematicians tend to
be portrayed in a somewhat exaggerated way in the media. Now one could
argue that all characters in a fictional story have some degree of
exaggeration of whatever they’re characteristics are, but I think we’ve
tended to have a somewhat distorted view; although programs like
"Numbers" I find pretty interesting because they kind of change the
construct of it. But I think the media has a role.
obviously, parents, but in the end, teachers, strong curricula and then
holding up examples; whether it’s the Google guys or the person who
helped to decode DNA. These are the kinds of things that I think can
all help; but preparation is what is always needed because to do science
takes a cumulative background. You can’t do advanced mathematics if
you don’t know calculus; if you don’t know trigonometry, geometry,
algebra and you certainly can’t do those things if you can’t add,
subtract, multiply, divide, no fractions, et cetera.
Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman