Luminaries in Telecom: Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

Dr. Jackson remains a beacon for women and minorities in the sciences

Kevin Ayerdis

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Novemeber 10, 2022

WALL TOWNSHIP, NJThis month we’re spotlighting our first (of many) leading female features, the trailblazing Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson! Featured in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, she’s been an ideal role model for women in science and academia worldwide for decades. Like previously featured Luminaries, Dr. Jackson’s innovations in physics caused ripple effects in multiple industries, including telecom. After learning more about Dr. Jackson in today’s feature I’m sure you will want to sing the praises of this amazing woman!

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Dr. Jackson was born and raised in Washington DC, an especially important location later in her career. During her high school years in the 1960s, she was especially perceived as an outlier, being a young woman so intensely excelling that the principal for the boys at her high school mentored her to pursue the sciences. Having graduated as her high school’s Valedictorian, she made history as being among the first African Americans to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most elite science and engineering universities worldwide and a hub of modern technology. Dr. Jackson exemplifies this by being the first Black female to receive a doctorate in theoretical solid-state physics from MIT in 1973.

The new PhD. research landed her a position as a visiting science associate at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. Her work on subatomic particles there served as a springboard back home to DC, where she studied theoretical physics at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. She managed this while also being elected to MIT Corporation’s Board of Trustees only 3 years after graduating! Fast forward a bit and now your ears may perk, as her contributions to telecom industry began soon after taking a position at the iconic Bell Labs, which drew the best and brightest researchers from everywhere. Here, Dr. Jackson began conducting experiments focusing on the electronic properties of ceramic materials in hopes that they could act as superconductors of electric currents.

Her breakthroughs in physics are involved with much of what we now know in telecommunications and were instrumental in paving the way towards advancements in multiple technologies we continue to use today:  the portable fax, touch-tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and technology behind caller ID and call waiting to name a few. Dr. Jackson had quite memorable a time at Bell Laboratories, where she met her future husband, fellow physicist Dr. Morris A. Washington. While working at Bell Labs and becoming a widely trusted expert in her field, she then took the honorable mantle of educator as she was appointed professor of physics at Rutgers University. She became a mentor and set an example for women in sciences by sharing her experiences with young minds from all over the world.

Proving this further, Dr. Jackson went on to accumulate accolades galore, taking many positions in her illustrious career:

  • President of The Society of Black Physicists
  • Member of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology
  • President Clinton named her Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • Inductee of National Women’s Hall of Fame

Dr. Jackson led the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association. In addition to these titles and accolades, she became the eighteenth president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Here Dr. Jackson remains a beacon for women and minorities in the sciences. She has been using her status by bringing much-needed attention to the ongoing “Quiet Crisis” of America’s predicted inability to innovate in the face of a looming scientific workforce shortage. As an especially important representative being an empowered and impassioned woman in science at the top of her field, Dr. Jackson has voiced her goal for Rensselaer: “To achieve prominence in the 21st century as a top-tier world-class technological research university, with global reach and global impact.”

And of course, there is much more to Dr. Jackson’s story that we may tell in the future, but this concludes this month’s feature in the “Luminaries in Telecom” series. Please feel free to add to the conversation! Had you heard of Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson before? What did you take away from her pursuits? Sound off in the comments below with any fun facts/specifics that may have been missed! Any suggestions for a person in Telecom history you think deserves a feature send a message to Emily@njfx.net. We at NJFX hope you’ve gleaned a bit of inspiration to take with you through the rest of your week!

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