Trailblazing Black Scientist Encourages Women To Follow Suit

Host Michel Martin speaks with Shirley Jackson — president of Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute — and the two discuss being a woman in the male-dominated field. Jackson is the first African-American woman to run a top research university.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, my commentary on something that put the damper on my excitement about March Madness. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, women's history month is winding down for this year, but we're still thinking about the various contributions women have made to history and the world. And that got us thinking about women in the sciences. Now, most people know about Marie Curie, a pioneer in the field of radioactivity. She made history at the turn of the century as a two-time Nobel Prize winner in physics and chemistry. And last year, three women received Nobel Prizes in the sciences a record.

But what about in between? Why does the presence of women in the sciences seem to lag, especially in the U.S., where women have been told for years that they can do whatever they want? We wanted to know more about this, so we've called upon Shirley Jackson. She is the president of Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. It's the country's oldest technological university, and she is the first African-American woman to run a top research university.

Shirley Jackson was appointed by President Obama to serve on his council of advisers on science and technology. And she also served in the Clinton administration as chairman of the U.S. nuclear regulatory commission. And we're pleased to have you with us. Thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. SHIRLEY JACKSON (President, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute): Well, I'm delighted to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, madam president, you are a physicist. And I did want to ask when you knew that a career in science was for you.

Ms. JACKSON: Well, I think I knew I was quite interested in science from the earliest ages. I was always interested in natural phenomena and things around me. I didn't formally pick physics until I was in college. But I picked it because I loved it. I love quantum mechanics, which is very esoteric. But I love being able to apply mathematical methods to ideas to try to explain phenomena and to predict new things.

MARTIN: The whole trajectory of women in science has been such an interesting one. There have been these high-profile individuals like yourself. And yet, the overall picture is one that the New York Times described as a tug-of-war between encouraging numbers and depressing details. Just to give one statistic, in computer science, for example, the percentage of female graduates from American universities peaked in the mid-1980s, at more than 40 percent and it has since dropped to half that.

And it also points out that the number of women who are full science professors at elite universities in the U.S. has been stuck at about 10 percent for half a century. So, there always has been, as I think you know, this core of women achieving in this field, and yet there just doesn't seem to be the kind of growth that you see in other areas like law, or even medicine. Why is that?

Ms. JACKSON: Well, I think there are some subtleties to the data that I think are important. If you look at fields such as the life sciences - biology, biochemistry, things along that line, you actually see quite a growth of women in those fields. And there's a critical mass phenomenon when there begins to be a certain number of women in a certain field, then that encourages others. As well, if you go outside of that and you go into the physical sciences, you go into computer science, these are much more mathematically based.

And I think that is something in terms of early exposure to and persistence in math. These are very important things for providing the background for a woman to be in science. And historically, there have been few women in the physical sciences, engineering and in mathematics. And so, it's harder to get to the tipping point, to get up over a certain threshold.

MARTIN: Can I ask, what were the critical factors for you in keeping you in the field?

Ms. JACKSON: Well, I came along at a time that was in the post-Sputnik era, where there was a high degree of focus in this country on educating young people, those with talent and interests in these fields, in the sciences and mathematics and engineering. And so there were a number of programs created, including an accelerated program in my own middle school and high school. And I was still in the pre-collegiate stage.

And there was still a very strong interest and belief in science and engineering as being core to the strength of our economy. And that's been born out over the last 50 years in terms of those things that have powered our economy, and in fact, have helped to uplift people around the world that have come out of scientific discovery.

MARTIN: What about the culture of the sciences. I mean, you spoke earlier about critical mass, and you are a person to use an overworked term that some people hate, but I'll use it anyways, you are a woman who's figured out how to have it all. You are a wife and a mom. But other people will say that the climate in the labs is such that women feel pressure to get out. They feel that their family life is not supported in a way that they can't do both. Are their cultural things that need to change? Or can they change? Or is it just the nature of the work is such that it is what it is?

Ms. JACKSON: Obviously, culture and the supportive nature or not of a given environment has a lot to do with the persistence of women in these fields. Certainly, balancing motherhood, being a wife with the demands of a career, are daunting. But that's true in any field, if one is going to be a world class lawyer, if one is going to be a world class economist.

Doing science does require working in a lab and some people may find that constraining. But the overall work-life balance is one that any woman who's in a field that is very demanding and high-powered will face. I think though, that the solution can't be just left on the shoulders of women.

Those who are in leadership positions for institutions that employ scientists and engineers have to themselves set a tone at the top, as well as having more family-friendly policies. And that has begun to go in universities, in major universities in terms of things like leave for childbirth, even for graduate students, which is something that we have for graduate women students here.

The fact of having more flexibility with ours, in the sense that the real metric is what people get done in the end. And so weve done a lot of those things and a numbers of other universities and colleges are doing that.

MARTIN: Are you starting to see results?

Ms. JACKSON: We think so. But, you know, its a work in progress at all times.

MARTIN: Do you think that the culture of acceptance for women in the lab in the sciences has improved since you started out?

Ms. JACKSON: Well...

MARTIN: Apart from the work that youre doing at the institution you head yourself?

Ms. JACKSON: I mean, I think that fairness would say that there definitely has been progress. As I said, there is much more representation of women, particularly in the life sciences, than there used to be. And you pointed out with your own lead in to our discussion the award of the Nobel Prize to three women and they turned out to have been primarily in the life sciences. But these are major steps. And so, it still is going to take time.

But I think we have a larger question, which has to do with the overall need to value science in our society and the people who do it. And that takes leadership and the tone at the top, and that begins even with the president. And the president can and, in fact, has - and that's what's exciting - set the tone that in enhancing STEM education is critical to our economic and national security. He has set it as a priority, and to have more scientists and engineers and the attraction of more people into the those fields is very important.

MARTIN: STEM, being science technology, engineering and mathematics.

Ms. JACKSON: Very good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Thank you. All right. And before I let you go, I know that you have talked about your concern about science education - science and math education overall. And youve expressed - not just for women, but for students overall in this country. It is curious that, you know, students can still come - the best and the brightest come from around the world to study in the United States and yet, number one, there's a concern about American students, particularly of certain backgrounds, not excelling in these fields. And your concern that youve expressed is that teachers aren't necessarily being trained for superiority in teaching the science.

So before we let you go, if you would just offer some observations about what you think needs to happen in science education overall.

Ms. JACKSON: Well, let me talk about it from the perspective of innovation. You know, innovation is what drives our economy and it has accounted for, by some measures, you know, over 50 percent in the growth of our GDP since World War II. But in the end, innovation is about people because people do drive innovation. I've spoken on numerous occasions about what I call the quiet crisis, and it relates to a convergence of trends.

And what is that convergence of trends? Well, the first is that our existing science and engineering and technology workforce is on the verge of retiring in record numbers because so many of the folks in that workforce came of age in the post-Sputnik era.

It is a fact that we do have fewer students coming from abroad to study. It's picked up again since 9/11 - it had fallen off after 9/11. But equally importantly, the issue is whether they stay here. More of them go back home. And so, if we want to maintain our economic security, our national security, if we want to help to mitigate challenges globally, then we have to do something now to turn the tide because it takes a decade or more - decades - to prepare a high-functioning scientist or engineer.

And you can ask, well, when will we get to a tipping point? And I think there are a range of activities across the country at the local, state and federal levels in the public, private and academic arenas. But the task is, how can they be knit together in a way to create scale, to create effect? But we have to do it because the demand for talented people in these fields is going to grow, because of the retirements I mentioned and because of the challenges we face.

And as far as young women and minorities, we can't afford to ignore half to two-thirds of the talent pool and feel weve tapped all the talent. And talent comes from everywhere. So we have to continue to be attractive to those who would come from abroad - very talented people - and have them stay. But we also have to understand we have talent right here.

And whether we're talking the young man from Iowa, the young Latino girl from the Bronx, the African-American youth from Washington, D.C., or the young woman from Scarsdale, these are talented young people and we have to invite them. We have to excite them. We have to prepare them. And we have to celebrate them when they are successful.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we started our conversation by asking why you were excited about science and how you became passionate about science. I did want to ask before we let you go, do you have any wisdom to share for perhaps a younger you who is listening to our conversation and who is thinking, I dont know if I could do all that?

Ms. JACKSON: Well, I always believe that one should pursue ones passion. Marry what one is interested in with what one can do well, with what one is willing to work for. To not have other people set ones sights to set limitations for how far one can go. To remember that there are multiple pathways to reach a goal and multiple trajectories of success and that, yes, it will be hard at times because life will deal all of us a hand that we have to play out.

Yes, there will be others who may not have the belief in one that one would like to have, but in the end it begins with the individual and I think those of us who are in positions, who have been successful, have as well a responsibility to help open up and create these pathways to let people, young people know, young women know that these pathways are there. And to support them along the way while pushing to ensure that we have strong curricular, that we have extraordinary and well-prepared teachers, that we support the teachers, and that we have well-equipped classrooms so that no child truly is left behind.

MARTIN: Shirley Jackson is president of Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, that's the country's oldest technological university. She was kind enough to join us from Troy, New York. We thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Ms. JACKSON: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

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