Q&A with Shirley Ann Jackson

December 21, 2012

Mary Jordan: I’d just love to hear you about how you ended up picking what you do.

Shirley Ann Jackson: My story is a little different. I collected live bumblebees.

Mary Jordan: How old [were] you when you started doing that?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Probably around 10. I used keep jars of bees. And I used to do little experiments with them with what I fed them and putting them in with other kind of like and unlike insects and keeping a very assiduous log. But then discovered math and I was pretty good. So I went to MIT. I took a physics course when I was a freshman and I kind of fell in love with that.

I started on electrical engineering, but then I took -- and this is going to sound a bit sort of cerebral -- a subject called quantum mechanics and I decided I loved it then.

While I was in college, I had pretty good grades, A’s and what-not. But I was told that a colored girl should learn a trade from one of the professors from whom I got an A. So I decided I would learn a trade and it would be physics.

Mary Jordan: What can we do to get more women motivated to go into science and why is it important?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Well, let’s talk about why they aren’t there first. Why they aren’t there begins very early in terms of what women are exposed to, what the expectations are.

So I think we have to try to reach young women early. We have to affirm them. We have to as a society, I think, value science and those who do it a little more. We found at the university that if young women are engaged in experimental work, if they’re part of teams, it makes a big difference. So we try to create an intergenerational mentoring system.

Mary Jordan: Why is it important that there are more women in science?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Well, first of all, it’s important that there be more scientists. Women have unique perspectives. They make unique contributions because they bring a holistic perspective that you don’t always find in some of our young men. And then we finally put them together, the young men and the young women; then, they influence each other. So the women learn to think in certain ways that are a little different, but the men as well begin to develop this more holistic perspective.

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