By Brian Willoughby Managing Editor, Tolerance.org
More than one person has joked that Shirley Ann Jackson’s name has expanded to include "first African American woman to…" during her remarkable life.
* The first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in any field, in 1973. She was the second African American woman in the nation to receive a doctorate in physics, behind Willie Hobbs Moore, who earned hers in 1972 at University of Michigan.
* The first African American and the first woman to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in 1995.
* And the first African American woman to head a national science and engineering research university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., a post she has held since 1999.
Jackson, though, has said she is less concerned with being first and more concerned in making sure young African American woman — and others who remain under-represented in the sciences — follow the paths trailblazed by woman such as her.
As Jackson told U.S. News & World Report in 1999, what good is blazing a trail if "high weeds" grow back and no one is inspired to follow? The article continues:
Jackson won’t be satisfied to go down in history as the "first black woman" of anything, she says, unless the familiar phrase is followed by two more words: "of many."
Jackson expanded the thought in a Nov. 10, 2004, speech, "Stretch Your Wings and Fly to the Sky," discussing the role of women and minorities in the fields of science:
For those of us who successfully have navigated these waters before you, it is both our privilege and our obligation to do everything we can to help you pursue those interests. That is why we are here.
‘Aim for the stars’
Born in 1946 in Washington, D.C., Jackson graduated as valedictorian of her high school class.
After completing her bachelor’s degree at MIT in 1968, she stayed on at that school — despite acceptances at Brown, Harvard and the University of Chicago — to complete her Ph.D.
Jackson overcame isolation and racism at MIT and in Cambridge, where she was at times shunned, shouted at and even spat upon. One professor told her to go "learn a trade."
She went on to work at various prestigious posts, including the Stanford Linear Accelerator, the Aspen Center for Physics and Bell Telephone Laboratories, before becoming a professor at Rutgers University in 1991.
In 1995, President Clinton named her to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Jackson is credited with restoring faith to the NRC, drawing praise from agency critics and supporters alike.
In 1998, Jackson was named to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
In 1999, a 34-member panel unanimously selected her to become president of Rensselaer.
Jackson holds more than 30 honorary doctoral degrees and secured an anonymous $360 million gift to Rensselaer.
As a trailblazer, Jackson encourages others with the same words her father told her as a child: "Aim for the stars so that you can reach the treetops."
As she summed up in a speech about engineering education in the 21st century: "If you do not aim high, you will not go far."
This essay originally appeared on Tolerance.org, the news and activism Website of Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.