Women in STEM: Shirley Ann Jackson

In honor of the transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, we bring you another installment in our “Women in STEM” series. Today, we feature Shirley Ann Jackson, the first African American woman to serve as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

51_jacksonShirley Ann Jackson is the 18th President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Jackson graduated high school valedictorian and in 1964 she began classes at MIT. At that time, she was one of less than 20 African American students and the only African American student studying theoretical physics.

In 1968 she completed her bachelor’s degree and in 1973 she became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT and only the second African American woman to earn a doctorate in physics. Jackson studied elementary particle theory at MIT and continued this research after completing her degrees. In 1974 she became a visiting scientist at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland continuing her research in elementary physics. In 1976 she began working at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center as a lecturer. The same year she started at the Theoretical Physics Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories studying materials to be used in semiconductors. Beginning in 1991 she served as a faculty at Rutgers University, while still working with Bell Laboratories.

In 1995, Shirley was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She was both the first woman and first African American to hold this prestigious position. President Barack Obama appointed her to serve as one of the 20 members on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2008.

In 1999 she became the 18th president of RPI, a position she still holds today. Again, she was the first woman and first African American to hold this position. During her time, she has helped raise over $1 billion for philanthropic causes and over seen a large campus improvement campaign. As President of RPI, she has been one of the highest paid university presidents in the nation, she was the highest paid college president in 2009.

Because of her many impressive accomplishments, she has been elected to many special scientific societies and even been awarded the Exceptional Black Scientist Award and the National Medal of Science in 2014. In 1998 she was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of fame. She has served on the Board of Directors for many impressive organizations including the New York Stock Exchange, IBM, and the Smithsonian Institution.

-Peggy Magro

Women in STEM: Rachel Carson

This is another installment of our “Women in STEM” series, where we focus on the different women who pursue STEM fields. Today, we feature Rachel Carson, a prominent environmentalist. thumbnail_rachel-carson

Rachel Carson was an American marine biologist and environmentalist. She was born on May 27, 1907 on a farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania. When she was a child, she was very interested in the natural world around her, and she loved to read and write. Her childhood love for nature and writing would remain a major influence for the rest of her life.

After graduating high school at the top of her class in 1925, Carson began studying English at Pennsylvania College for Women. She hoped to become a writer, but switched her major to biology and graduated with a biology degree in 1929. She continued studying zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University. It was a major accomplishment for a woman in 1929 to attend a school as prestigious as Johns Hopkins and earn a master’s degree in a scientific field. Carson graduated with a master’s degree in zoology in 1932.

After she graduated, she worked part time at the Bureau of Fisheries. Eventually she got a full time job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where she became the assistant editor of U.S. Fish and Wildlife publications. She later became editor-in-chief, which involved writing speeches and managing the library and staff for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although she ultimately decided to major in biology, Rachel Carson did not give up her dream of becoming a writer. She submitted articles to newspapers and magazines, and she published her first novel, Under the Sea-Wind, in 1941. In 1952, Carson published The Sea around Us, which became a bestseller. Because her second book was so successful, she was able to resign from the Fish and Wildlife Service the next year so that she could write full time. In 1962 she published her most well-known and influential novel, Silent Spring, which sparked controversy about the effects of fertilizers and pesticides on the environment. The controversy led some to attack Carson’s professional integrity, but these accusations were ultimately unfounded.

A novel highlighting the harmful impacts pesticides had on the environment was not received well by many who were economically reliant on pesticides. The companies that produced the pesticides and the farmers that used them were making a profit, so they didn’t want to make any changes that could potentially reduce profit. However, the government stepped in and conducted an investigation on the use of pesticides in the U.S. As a result of the investigation DDT, a particularly harmful pesticide, was banned, and more stringent policies were implemented concerning the manufacture and use of pesticides.

Rachel Carson passed away on April 14, 1954 in Silver Spring, Maryland at the age of 56. Carson became a respected biologist and author during a time when it was uncommon for women to work in a scientific field. She published a novel that called for major changes in a prominent U.S. industry, knowing that the novel could potentially have a negative effect on her career. She is remembered as a scientist and environmental activist.

-Bailey Hayes

Women in STEM: Grace Hopper

This is part of an ongoing series which spotlights on the countless women in STEM fields. Today, we have something a little different for you: a woman who was both a computer scientist and naval officer. 

Grace Hopper was a computer scientist and naval officer. She earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Vassar College in 1928. Grace went on to earn her master’s degree in at Yale, completing it in 1930. In 1934 she completed her Ph.D. in mathematics at Yale. She was one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics.

While teaching mathematics at Vassar, she tried to enlist on the Navy to help in the WWII war efforts. Grace was initially denied because her position as a mathematician was too valuable, but after taking a leave of absence from Vassar and an exemption to enlist, she graduated from Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School first in her class. Because of this accomplishment she was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard university. She remained in the Harvard Computation Lab until 1949. While working at Harvard, she noticed that a moth had gotten into the Mark II computer. Because of this she is credited with the term “computer bug.”

In 1949, Grace began working in the private computer industry at Eckert-Maichly Computer Corporation. She had the idea to develop a programming language using English words instead of the complicated machine language, and she went on to develop the first compiler after only 3 years, the A compiler. She also developed programming languages to compliment the compiler.  After this achievement she was named director of automatic programming and developed compiler based programming languages at Remington Rand, which took over Eckert-Maichly in 1950.

She retired in 1966, after being promoted to the rank of Commander. But returned back to active duty twice to help adapt communication between different languages, before finally retiring involuntarily in 1986, as the oldest active duty commissioned officer. She was awarded the highest non-combat award given by the Department of Defense, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. In 1973 she was promoted to the rank of Captain for her work in the Navy Programming Languages Group. She was still working as a senior consultant at Digital Equipment Corporation when she passed at age 85.

Today she is honored by the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Engineering thrown annually by the Anita Borg Institute. The celebration is to continue her legacy of mentoring and teaching young women to program. This is the largest gathering of women in technology in the world. In 1997 a guided missile destroyer was commissioned by the Navy. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

-Margaret Magro

Women in STEM: Rosalind Franklin

This is part of an ongoing series devoting to the many women in STEM fields. Today, we feature a scientist who became well-known long after her death: Rosalind Franklin.

Popular culture credits James Watson and Francis Crick with the discovery of the helical structure of DNA. Indeed, they won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery. However, the lesser-known–but no less integral–contributor to their work was a woman by the name of Rosalind Franklin.

rosalind-franklinRosalind Franklin was a well-educated young Jewish woman that excelled in both languages and sports. She was often characterized as “reluctant” to share her work, a resistance that probably stemmed from the sexism and anti-Semitism prominent in her place of work. But despite the obstacles she faced, Franklin established herself as a groundbreaking researcher, whose primary tool was X-ray diffraction. Franklin was the first to use X-ray diffraction on irregular solids. Additionally, her penchant for perfectionism enabled her to snap photos of unprecedented high quality of structures at their molecular level.

After perfecting diffraction to her satisfaction, she turned her attention to analyzing DNA. After several years of tireless work, Rosalind immortalized pictorial evidence of the double-helix structure of DNA. In this famous photograph, Franklin paved the way for the double-stranded model of DNA – not single- or triple-stranded, as prominent theories at the time hypothesized.

Despite Franklin’s tireless efforts in the laboratory, her work was stolen from her dnaby her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, and delivered without her knowledge or consent to Watson and Crick. When Wilkins secreted copies of Franklin’s work to Watson and Crick, they were able to correct their triple-stranded model; and from there, Watson and Crick were able to deduce the correct structure of DNA. Franklin’s contribution was reduced to nothing more than a footnote in their famous paper.

Unfortunately, Franklin’s remarkable contribution to our modern understanding of biology is not commonly taught in elementary education. However, there has recently been an increase in attention paid toward women in science. As such, Franklin’s name is becoming more and more prominent in discussions about biology. In fact, if not for the rule against awarding posthumous Nobel Prizes, she might have won the Nobel Prize as well.

-Jordan Ganley

Women in STEM: Mae Jemison

This is part of a brand-new series called “Women in STEM,” where we spotlight different women in STEM fields including engineering and science. We hope their stories can help inspire women to not feel discouraged in the male-dominated workforce. This week, we focus on Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. 

mae_jemison_1_ff665b08b837fDr. Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space. She was born on October 17, 1956 in Alabama, but she grew up in Chicago, Illinois. As a child, she always loved science and space even though her interest in science was not accepted by her teachers and even her college professors. She graduated from Stanford in 1977 with a B.S. in chemical engineering, and went on to get her Doctor of Medicine degree from Cornell Medical College in 1981.

Dr. Jemison decided to apply to NASA’s astronaut program after being inspired by the actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. She was selected to the astronaut program as one of 15 out of over 2000 applicants, and she was in the first class of astronauts selected after Challenger in 1986. Before going into space, she worked on launch support and Shuttle computer software at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. From September 12 to 20, 1992, she was a Mission Specialist aboard STS-47, a collaboration between the U.S. and Japan. Onboard in space, she conducted experiments on bone cell research, and also weightlessness and motion sickness. However, she left NASA in 1993 and went on to found her own company, The Jemison Group, to develop technology for daily life. She also is passionate about getting minority students interested in science.

In addition to Dr. Jemison’s love for science and space, she also loves dancing. She started dancing when she was 11, and studied all kinds of dance, including African dancing, ballet, jazz, and modern styles. She even wanted to become a professional dancer, but chose medical school after her mother told her, “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.”

Dr. Jemison believes that science and dance are connected as “expressions of the boundless creativity that people have to share with one another.” She even appeared as a character on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and she was the first real astronaut to ever appear on the show.

Despite the challenges she faced as a woman of color pursuing engineering, her accomplishments throughout her life are inspiring. She was passionate about science, but she also loved art through dance and found her own way to merge her interests together. Her life is just one example of how women in STEM can achieve whatever they want to.