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Meet Dr. Shirley Jackson, the First Black Woman to Earn A PHD in Physics from MIT and Invented Fibre Optic and Solar Cells

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson of RPI is more than the nation’s highest-paid college president: she is the woman Time magazine calls “the ultimate role model for women in science.”

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, a theoretical physicist and famous black inventor, has been credited with making many advances in science. She first developed an interest in science and mathematics during her childhood and conducted experiments and studies, such as those on the eating habits of honeybees. She followed this interest to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she received a bachelor, and doctoral degree, all in the field of physics. In doing so she became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT.

Jackson conducted successful experiments in theoretical physics and used her knowledge of physics to foster advances in telecommunications research while working at Bell Laboratories. Dr. Jackson conducted breakthrough basic scientific research that enabled others to invent the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.

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Jackson is the 18th President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological research university in the United States, and recently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation’s top 50 universities. The mission of Rensselaer since its founding in 1824 has been to “apply science to the common purposes of life.” Dr. Jackson’s goal for Rensselaer is “to achieve prominence in the 21st century as a top-tier world-class technological research university, with global reach and global impact.”

She has been the driving force behind the explosive growth in funds, faculty, and programming at RPI since 1999. Since that time, her Rensselaer Plan has received more than $1.25 billion in invested funds. Jackson secured a $360 million anonymous, unrestricted gift in 2001; essentially, she has overseen and raised more funds than anyone else in the school’s history. During her tenure, Jackson has hired more than 325 new tenure-track faculty and implemented award-winning student life programs. In all her spare time, Jackson finds time to serve on multiple boards, including the New York Stock Exchange, IBM, and FedEx.

  • First African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT
  • First African-American women to lead a top-ranked research university
  • Co-Chair of President’s Intelligence Advisory Board for Barack Obama
  • Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, appointed by Bill Clinton
  • Recipient of 53 honorary doctorate degrees
  • Highest-earning college president with a salary of more than $7 million
  • Ranked among the 50 Greatest Living Geniuses

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