Shirley Ann Jackson honoured for role as trailblazer and outstanding contributions to science, engineering and education

By Corporate Communication

Shirley Ann Jackson has made outstanding contributions to science, engineering and education. As close friend and mentor to former Stellenbosch University (SU) Rector, the late Professor Russel Botman, her experience and support as 18th president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute also played a key part in the birth of SU’s high-impact HOPE Project and the belief that what happens at SU matters to the world.

Born in Washington DC to parents who put a premium on education, Jackson graduated from school in 1964 as valedictorian of her class. She enrolled at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – one of only 20 African-American students there, and the only one studying theoretical physics. Her successful study career at MIT culminated in a PhD in nuclear physics in 1973. As the first African-American woman ever to obtain a doctorate in physics in the United States, she again broke new ground.

After postdoctoral fellowships at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois and the European Organisation of Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, Jackson was employed by AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Here she spent 15 years researching the optical and electronic properties of layered materials, such as strain-layer semiconductor superlattices. Eager to transfer her knowledge and skills to a next generation of scientists, she later accepted a physics professorship at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

In 1999, Jackson continued her now established role as trailblazer when she became the first woman and African-American to be elected as president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her vision was to transform Rensselaer into a world-class technological research university – a vision she has since achieved: Having seen investment of more than $1,25 billion over the past 15 years, the campus has been transformed with state-of-the-art research facilities. These include the Centre for Computational Innovations, boasting the most powerful supercomputer at a private university in the United States. Rensselaer’s international rankings have risen substantially, and its first-year intake has tripled. Jackson initiated curriculum transformation, growth in undergraduate research and a radically changed student experience, including the award-winning CLASS (Clustered Learning, Advocacy and Support for Students) programme. Approaching its bicentennial in 2024, the university offers a comprehensive student experience, pedagogical innovations such as mixed-reality classroom, and advanced research in data science, artificial intelligence and cognitive science.

In addition to a number of positions as science, technology and innovation advisor to state bodies, her expertise also earned her two presidential appointments – chair of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Bill Clinton, and member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

SU is honoured to confer on Shirley Ann Jackson the degree Doctor of Engineering (DEng), honoris causa, for her role as trailblazer in the academic sphere and her commitment to the transformation of higher education; for her outstanding contributions to science, engineering and technology; and for her leadership that helped shape Stellenbosch University into a university in Africa, for the world.

Photo caption: Dr Shirley Jackson.