Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, next year will receive the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific achievement given out by the U.S. government.
President Barack Obama will honor Jackson with the award at a ceremony. The award recognizes scientists “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical or engineering sciences.”
Jackson was the first black woman to earn a doctorate from the fabled Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She worked as a researcher in some of the most famous labs across the globe, including the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Bell Labs. She later became the first woman to head the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, under President Bill Clinton.
“I’m not done yet,” Jackson said at event in Troy earlier this month when asked about the biggest accomplishment in her career. “There are different phases in your career, and you try to leave something behind and do something meaningful in each phase.”
Jackson became the 18th president of RPI in 1999, again the first woman and African-American to hold the position. As president, she has led major fundraising initiatives and has expanded the campus’ physical footprint. She has also turned the school’s academic focus to merging disparate scientific fields.
During a talk with the Troy-area Chamber of Commerce this month, she discussed the school’s focus on bringing students and researchers across disciplines together to address large challenges. She also stressed the importance of a well-rounded education for budding doctors, engineers and scientists.
“With today’s problems there is no progress if one doesn’t bring people together from all disciplines ...” she said. “You can’t do anything if you don’t know anything, so we make sure our students have strong roots.”
The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 and has been awarded to 487 scientists and engineers since. Each year a panel of 12 scientists appointed by the president evaluate nominees for the award.
Jackson is no stranger to the White House. From 2009 to 2014, she served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In 2014, Obama appointed her to co-chair his Intelligence Advisory Board, which assesses the nation’s intelligence activities.
But she still calls Troy home and seems intent on continuing the work of strengthening RPI’s reputation as one of the nation’s elite schools for science and engineering.
“If you can educate those who are going to erect our future and support those who through their discoveries and innovations will also create our future, then that’s a privilege,” she said at the chamber event.