Shirley Ann Jackson


B.S. (1968) from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Ph.D. Physics (1973) Massachusetts Institute of Technology


This scientist is most known for...

Shirley was the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT.

Her research focus is theoretical physics. In more detail, she is interested in the electronic, optical, magnetic, and transport properties of novel semiconductor systems. Of special interest are the behavior of magnetic polarons in semimagnetic and dilute magnetic semiconductors and the optical response properties of semiconductor quantum-wells and superlattices.  

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, the touch-tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.

Active Research Era: 20th & 21st centuries

Related Princeton Course(s):

PHY 403, PHY 408, ECE 308

More Information:

Jackson was born on August 5, 1946, in Washington, DC. Her parents, Beatrice and George Jackson, strongly valued education and encouraged her in school. Her father spurred on her interest in science by helping her with projects for her science classes. At Roosevelt High School, Jackson attended accelerated programs in both math and science, and she graduated in 1964 as valedictorian. Jackson began classes at MIT that same year, one of fewer than twenty African American students and the only one studying theoretical physics. While a student she did volunteer work at Boston City Hospital and tutored students at the Roxbury YMCA. She earned her bachelor's degree in 1968, writing her thesis on solid-state physics, a subject then in the forefront of theoretical physics.

Although accepted at Brown, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, Jackson decided to stay at MIT for her doctoral work, because she wanted to encourage more African American students to attend the institution. She worked on elementary particle theory for her Ph.D., which she completed in 1973. Her research was directed by James Young, the first African American tenured full professor in MIT's physics department. Jackson's thesis, "The Study of a Multiperipheral Model with Continued Cross-Channel Unitarity," was subsequently published in the Annals of Physics in 1975.

As a postdoctoral student of subatomic particles during the 1970s, Jackson studied and conducted research at a number of prestigious physics laboratories in both the United States and Europe. Her first position was as a research associate at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois (known as Fermilab) where she studied hadrons--medium to large subatomic particles that include baryons and mesons. In 1974 she became visiting scientist at the accelerator lab at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. There she explored theories of strongly interacting elementary particles. In 1976 and 1977, she both lectured in physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and became a visiting scientist at the Aspen Center for Physics.1

She served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) for President Obama; in 2014 she became co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, serving until early 2017. In these positions, she led a study on advanced manufacturing in the United States and got involved with issues of national and global security, cybersecurity, and digital technology.

“She has a broad view of how science and technology can assist our country and the world,” says Gates, who served with Jackson on PCAST. In 2016, Obama awarded her the National Medal of Science.

1‘Shirley Jackson - Physicist of the African Diaspora’, accessed 19 July 2021,