There are many Black women in STEM who are not often recognized for their groundbreaking innovations, but Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is one who spent a lifetime breaking glass ceilings for her community to change that notion.
Born in Washington D.C. back in 1946, Dr. Jackson — known as a renowned physicist and university president — grew up spurring an interest in science as a child and her parents helped nurture that throughout her educational career, according to The History Makers.
After attending accelerated math and science classes at Roosevelt High School and graduating as valedictorian, she went off to pursue a degree in Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She was among the first handful of Black students at MIT and became the first Black woman to receive her doctorate from the university.
Her determination to break barriers and promote social justice motivated her to organize MIT’s Black Student Union, where she helped increase the number of Blacks students enrolled at the university from 2 to 57 in just a year, according to National Women’s Hall of Fame.
From MIT, Dr. Jackson went on to conduct research at labs around the world for 15 years. She spent the bulk of her days conducting research in theoretical physics, solid state and quantum physics, and optical physics at AT&T’s Bell Labs in New Jersey where she created some of her greatest inventions, Face2Face Africa reports.
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The leading technology she innovated that’s responsible for caller ID and call waiting was considered a game-changer in regards to advancing modern-day telecommunications.
Her breakthrough scientific research and successful theoretical physics experiments helped enable others to invent other telecommunications devices such as the fax machine, touch-tone phone, fiber optic cells, and solar cells.
Though she never set out to be a pioneer in her growing field, Dr. Jackson had a natural talent that couldn’t be ignored by her peers. New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean appointed her to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology in 1989 and she later accepted a teaching role at Rutgers University, where she developed a stronger passion for research and education, News10 reports.
Her impressive work caught the attention of another powerful figure, then President Bill Clinton who made Dr. Jackson chair of the National Regulatory Commission — another position where she was the first Black woman to break the glass ceiling.
Years following this accomplishment, Dr. Jackson continued to be a role model for Black women in STEM as she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame — an honor that recognized “her significant contributions as a distinguished scientist and advocate for education, science and public policy,” PGI shares.
“For a long time I didn’t necessarily think of myself as a role model,” she shared with News10 in a recent Zoom interview, “but then I came around on that and decided that if what I had accomplished could be motivational and encouraging to other young African-American women, young women and to other African-Americans and minorities broadly, then that would be a good thing.”
Additionally, she was also appointed the 18th president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, another position she occupied as the first Black woman.
In recent years, DR. Jackson has received several other honorable awards for her outstanding career achievements — including being named “the ultimate role model for women in science” by TIME Magazine in 2005. Plus, the National Medal of Science was presented to her by former President Barack Obama in 2016.
Dr. Jackson was also appointed to serve on former President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology — a 20-member advisory group dedicated to public policy.
Dr. Jackson’s lifetime of achievements paved the way for Black women in science to become the norm and, to this day she advocates for future generations to use their skills as technologists for the greater good.
“This technology is a tremendous opportunity, and it’s very important that people understand that what seems so new today, is built on a backbone of knowledge generated over decades,” she concluded in her interview with News10. “It can be used for great good, but can be equally used for great harm. I hope that people can recognize if we all walk in the same direction, listen to each other, and work for a common goal, then that will ultimately lead to the best outcome for everyone.”