As a young girl, Shirley Ann Jackson spent many of her days collecting bumble bees in her parents’ backyard. Her childhood fascination with nature would later bloom into an illustrious career in science.
After becoming the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from M.I.T., Jackson became a professor of physics at Rutgers University. In 1995, she returned to her native Washington, D.C., where President Bill Clinton appointed her as the first African-American woman to serve as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. During her four years as chair, Jackson made sweeping changes to the commission’s reactor oversight program. She also discovered an “emerging gap” of workers, particularly women and minorities, in the STEM workforce (fields of science, technology, engineering and math).
Jackson later coined her observation as the Quiet Crisis. She explains that after the Soviet Union successfully launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957, there was an intense push in the U.S. toward math and science, which created an influx of scientists like herself. But Jackson says as that generation retires, there are not enough young people in the pipeline to take their place.
“Our colleges and universities are not graduating enough scientists and engineers… and we are doing a particularly poor job of recruiting the underrepresented majority of minorities and women,” Jackson commented during a speech to the Detroit Economic Club in 2009.
As president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, Jackson is hoping to change that. During her eleven years of leadership, the number of women faculty has grown by 60 percent and the number of minority faculty has more than doubled. Jackson is also working to fill the gap through government and business. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed her to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and she currently sits on the board of directors of several energy and technology companies, including IBM and Marathon Oil.
It’s enough to keep Jackson as busy as a bee – pollinating the next generation of the nation’s innovators.