NPR logo

Black Scientist's Path To Success Was Often Lonely

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/101412303/101412289" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Black Scientist's Path To Success Was Often Lonely

Interviews

Black Scientist's Path To Success Was Often Lonely

Black Scientist's Path To Success Was Often Lonely

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/101412303/101412289" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Shirley Ann Jackson was just a young girl when the United States and Russia entered into a space race. Years later, Jackson would become the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Jackson is now a leading scientist and a leading voice on energy policy.

CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, as part of our series on Women's History month, we are remembering the civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells. But first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch. It's a time when we talk to people who've made a difference through their work and set an example for others by how they've lived their lives.

Today, our guest is a big thinker who has drawn inspiration from studying the tiniest elements of the universe. Shirley Ann Jackson is a world-renowned physicist whose love for exploring nature led her to a trailblazing career in science, including leadership of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the Clinton administration.

Now Jackson is passing on her love of science to the next generation of innovators as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. She's the first woman and the first African-American to hold that post. And Shirley Jackson joins us now from the campus studios in Troy, New York. President Jackson, welcome to the program.

Dr. SHIRLEY ANN JACKSON (President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute): Well, thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

CORLEY: Well, Shirley Jackson, you have had a long, storied career in science and it continues. But, as I understand, it all began with bees. So, tell us about your youthful curiosity in bees.

Dr. JACKSON: I was always interested in the world around me, and originally that took the form of looking in our backyard. And different kinds of insects would be there, in particular, bumblebees. So I started plucking them from the flowers, with the flowers, and keeping them in mason jars under our back porch. And I wanted to see how they behaved and how they interacted with each other.

CORLEY: Never…

Dr. JACKSON: So I would…

CORLEY: I was just going to say, never worried about getting stung?

Dr. JACKSON: You may not believe this, but the whole time I was growing up, I was never stung. I was stung years later, walking by a shrub in Boulder, Colorado. And somehow a bee decided he liked my finger, and he stung me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: Didn't know your history.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: Well, you grew up in a time when the space race was underway, the United States and Russians jockeying for position. There was, of course, Sputnik, and later, Americans walking on the moon. How influential were those events in your life?

Dr. JACKSON: Those were very influential. In fact, I would say that what had a big influence on setting me off on the trajectory I ended up on, and in a sense, creating the pathway to my career, was the coalescence of, really, two things. One was the desegregation of the public schools through the Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court decision, followed a short time later by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite.

The Brown decision was important because it opened a broader education equality of opportunity. Sputnik was important because it riveted the nation's attention on science and the need to encourage more young people to study science, mathematics and related fields. And so what began, then, with the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite was essentially a science-based defense race. But it was really a science race, and it made for more investments in public education, particularly in science and math.

And so all of these things came at a time when I was just coming of age. And the school system in Washington, D.C. changed. And a tracking system, which was controversial, was put into place. But it had the effect of creating very advanced programs in math and science. And I was a beneficiary of that, and it gave me a strong background coming out of high school for studying, in this case, physics.

CORLEY: You often talk about the need for diversity in science, and you have been a trailblazer, one of the first women to receive a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, for example. And I was wondering how difficult some of the situations you've been in and have been. How difficult was with college, for example, or your first job? There weren't many people like you around at the time.

Dr. JACKSON: Well, that's for sure. In fact, I was the first African-American woman to get a Ph.D. from MIT. But I was also one of the first two African-American women to get a Bachelor's degree from MIT. So at the time that I went, out of a class of about 900, there were five African-Americans. Three of us graduated four years later. Needless to say, we were rather interesting beings to the people we met. And it was not always friendly. In fact, there were times when some of my classmates would not sit next to me in class, or certainly not work with me on homework and different kinds of tasks we were assigned.

And so that made for a fairly isolating and lonely existence in many ways, although I was always bolstered by my fascination with and love of the subject, at any rate. And so on an academic basis, I actually was fine. The issue had to do more with the social isolation.

CORLEY: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE. I'm Cheryl Corley, and I'm speaking with Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a leading voice in the world science. You know, science and engineering are male-dominated fields, and I was wondering if there was any female role model that you looked up to at all.

Dr. JACKSON: My female role models were two types. One was my own mother. She was not a scientist. But my mother grew up at a time that was quite different. She just celebrated her 94th birthday. And so she grew up in Virginia. And she was an orphan by the time she was midway through her teenage years. And she lived in a part of Virginia where there was no public high school for Negro students. Her older siblings pooled their resources and sent her to a boarding school for black girls, and that's where she finished her high school education. And she went on to college, and after World War II she did other things, including becoming a social worker. So she had the biggest influence on me. My other role models were, in fact, a cadre of woman who were my teachers, primarily in high school.

They were very challenging. I think they took it upon themselves, and these were African-American women, to ensure that the students they taught were prepared for competition and to perform on any field. And they would not brook less than the best effort. And at the same time, they nurtured talent. And so that was kind of a unique part of my experience that I think had a big role in helping to shape my career and giving me confidence. I always had motivation. I must tell you that I don't really know why, but I always have. And I've always had love of subject, in spite of any adversity I was facing. And in the end, I had self confidence. And my mother was key to that as well, of not having others set your limits and not have others dissuade you from what you want to do. And I tend to be that way, probably in spades.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: Well, let me turn you today's world of science, which you say is now in a quiet crisis. And I want you to explain what you mean by that. Is it that there aren't enough females in science or minorities, or just not enough scientists?

Dr. JACKSON: Well, one has to do with a current cohort of scientist and engineers coming to retirement. Secondly, there are not enough young Americans studying science and mathematics and related fields, and therefore, there are not enough in the pipeline to replace them. We in the United States have always benefited from having great talent, exclusive talent from abroad. And many international students who have come here, particularly for advanced degrees, have remained. We have had the benefit of their talents and creativity. But the world has flattened, and as such, there are opportunities more broadly for them around the world. And therefore we cannot take for granted that they will all stay.

And so the quiet crisis is quiet because of these converging trends, and it is a crisis because the small, relatively small cadre of scientists and engineers have really made the great discoveries and developed a number of the great technologies that we all take for granted in many ways today but depend so strongly on. And what people have to realize is how long it takes to educate a world-class scientist or engineer. It takes decades.

CORLEY: Well, you're the president of University. What do you think universities need to do to addresses this crisis, and how do you make science interesting or compelling to students?

Dr. JACKSON: Well, I think universities are part of an overall pipeline that has to do five things. And I call it invite, excite, nurture, educate and launch young people into careers in science and engineering. We have to start early to expose more of our young people to science, to the wonders of it, to mathematics, to show them that these things are exciting in and of themselves, as well as having them understand more broadly than they pick up from the general media and other sources the kinds of careers that people really have in these arenas. But also expose them as well to the thought that great companies, great industries, great wealth all have been created because of the work of scientists and engineers - much of it redounding to the scientists and engineers themselves.

But in order to do this we have to meet young people who they are. They've grown up in a technology-rich environment with all kinds of media, and so there's a greater opportunity to use these varied things to engage them, both to have them understand that the root of those things comes from science and engineering. But also use them as tools to enrich the educational process.

CORLEY: Professor, if you go back to the days when, you know, you first became interested in science, when you were out their catching the bumblebees and then watching the space race that was going on. I was wondering, you know, if we have young people today who might be interested in science but don't have that same kind of strong impetus out in the world today that you had, what kind of advice do you give them if they have this curiosity about the world and some interest in science?

Dr. JACKSON: The advice I give to young people is fundamentally to not let others put limits on who you think you can be, to not put limits on them, and to understand and to believe that all of us have talents and have things to contribute. And my father always taught us to aim for the stars so that you can at least reach the tree tops, and at any rate, you will get off the ground. And his basic message is if you don't aim high, you won't go far. But I say that knowing that many young people have very difficult life circumstances and so on. But in the end, never let others define what your life can be.

CORLEY: Physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She joined us from the university. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Dr. JACKSON: Thank you. This is my pleasure.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.