Jackson was born in Washington, D.C. 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 Senior High School, Jackson attended accelerated programs in both math and science, and graduated in 1964 as valedictorian.
Jackson began classes at MIT in 1964, 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 B.S. degree in 1968, writing her thesis on solid-state physics.
Jackson elected to stay at MIT for her doctoral work, in part to encourage more African American students to attend the institution. She worked on elementary particle theory, and received her Ph.D. degree in nuclear physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973, the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate degree from MIT. Her research was directed by James Young. Jackson is also the second African-American woman in the United States to earn a doctorate in physics.
As a postdoctoral researcher of subatomic particles during the 1970s, Jackson studied and conducted research at a number of 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. In 1974 she became visiting scientist at the European Organization 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.
At one time her research focused on Landau–Ginsburg theories of charge density waves in layered compounds, and has studied two-dimensional Yang-Mills gauge theories and neutrino reactions.
Jackson has described her interests thus:
I am 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. My interests also include quantum dots, mesoscopic systems, and the role of antiferromagnetic fluctuations in correlated 2D electron systems.
Jackson joined the Theoretical Physics Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1976, examining the fundamental properties of various materials. She began her time at Bell Labs by studying materials to be used in the semiconductor industry. In 1978, Jackson became part of the Scattering and Low Energy Physics Research Department, and in 1988 she moved to the Solid State and Quantum Physics Research Department. At Bell Labs, Jackson researched the optical and electronic properties of two-dimensional and quasi-two dimensional systems. In her research, Jackson has made contributions to the knowledge of charged density waves in layered compounds, polaronic aspects of electrons in the surface of liquid helium films, and optical and electronic properties of semiconductor strained-layer superlattices. On these topics and others she has prepared or collaborated on over 100 scientific articles.
Jackson served on the faculty at Rutgers University in Piscataway and New Brunswick, New Jersey from 1991 to 1995, in addition to continuing to consult with Bell Labs on semiconductor theory. Her research during this time focused on the electronic and optical properties of two-dimensional systems.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Jackson to serve as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), becoming the first woman and first African American to hold that position. At the NRC, she had "ultimate authority for all NRC functions pertaining to an emergency involving an NRC licensee." In addition, while Jackson served on the commission she assisted in the establishment of the International Nuclear Regulators Association.
On July 1, 1999, Jackson became the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She was the first woman and first African American to hold this position. Since her appointment to president of RPI, Jackson has helped raise over $1 billion in donations for philanthropic causes. Jackson is leading a strategic initiative called The Rensselaer Plan and much progress has been made towards achieving the Plan's goals. She has overseen a large capital improvement campaign, including the construction of an Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center and the East Campus Athletic Village. She enjoys the ongoing support of the RPI Board of Trustees. On April 26, 2006, the faculty of RPI (including a number of retirees) voted 155 to 149 against a vote of no-confidence in Jackson. In the Fall of 2007, the Rensselaer Board of Trustees suspended the faculty senate, thus prompting a strong reaction from the Rensselaer community that resulted in various protests including a "teach in".
Since arriving at RPI, Jackson has been one of the highest-paid university presidents in the nation. Her combined salary and benefits have expanded from $423,150 in 1999–2000 to over $1.3 million in 2006–2007 and to $2.34 million in 2010. In 2011 Jackson's salary was $1.75 million. In 2006–2007, it is estimated she received another $1.3 million from board seats at several major corporations. The announcement of layoffs at RPI in December 2008 led some in the RPI community to question whether the institute should continue to compensate Jackson at this level, maintain a $450,000 Adirondack residence for her, and continue to support a personal staff of housekeepers, bodyguards and other aides. In July 2009, the news reported on the construction of a 10,000-square-foot (930 m2) mountain-top home in Bolton, New York, overlooking Lake George. A water-quality activist raised concerns about possible environmental hazards from the construction of a driveway, but according to Department of Environmental Conservation officials, the work was in compliance.
In its 2009 review of the decade 1999–2009, McClatchy Newspapers reported Jackson as the highest-paid currently sitting college president in the U.S., with a 2008 salary of approximately $1.6 million. On December 4–5, 2009 Jackson celebrated her 10th year at RPI with an extravagant "Celebration Weekend", which featured tribute concerts by Aretha Franklin and Joshua Bell among other events. Following the weekend, the Board of Trustees announced they would support construction of a new guest house on Jackson's property, for the purpose of "[enabling] the president to receive and entertain, appropriately, Rensselaer constituents, donors, and other high-level visitors". It was later reported that Jackson's current house on Tibbits Avenue has 4,884 square feet (453.7 m2) of space, seven bedrooms and five bathrooms, and an estimated value of $1,122,500. The trustees said that "the funds for this new project would not have been available for any other purpose". William Walker, the school's vice president of strategic communications and external relations noted "The board sees this very much as a long-term investment … for President Jackson and her successors."
On February 2, 2010, the Troy Zoning Board of Appeals denied RPI's request for a zoning variance allowing them to construct the new house at a height of 44 feet (13 m), which would exceed the 25-foot (7.6 m) height restriction on buildings in residential areas. The Zoning Board stated that it is "too big", and two firefighters believed the property would be difficult to access with emergency vehicles. A new plan was announced on February 25, describing how the president's house will be replaced with a new two-story house. The new house will have "9,600 square feet of livable space, divided approximately equally between living space for the president's family and rooms for the president to conduct meetings and events". In June 2010, it was discovered that the newest plans for the house showed a new size of 19,500 square feet (1,810 m2), causing the city of Troy to issue a stop-work order until additional building fees were paid.
In June 2010, it was announced that the Rensselaer Board of Trustees unanimously voted to extend Jackson a ten-year contract renewal, which she accepted. Shirley Ann Jackson's compensation ranked 1st among USA private university presidents in 2014.
Jackson has received many fellowships, including the Martin Marietta Aircraft Company Scholarship and Fellowship, the Prince Hall Masons Scholarship, the National Science Foundation Traineeship, and a Ford Foundation Advanced Study Fellowship. She has been elected to numerous special societies, including the American Physical Society and American Philosophical Society. In 2014, she was named recipient of the National Medal of Science
Her achievements in science and education have been recognized with multiple awards, including the CIBA-GEIGY Exceptional Black Scientist Award. In the early 1990s, Governor James Florio awarded her the Thomas Alva Edison Science Award for her contributions to physics and for the promotion of science. In 2001 she received the Richtmyer Memorial Award given annually by the American Association of Physics Teachers. She has also received many honorary doctorate degrees.
Jackson received awards for the years 1976 and 1981 as one of the Outstanding Young Women of America.
She was inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998 for "her significant contributions as a distinguished scientist and advocate for education, science, and public policy".
Jackson has also been active in professional associations and in serving society through public scientific commissions. In 1985, Governor Thomas Kean appointed her to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. She is an active voice in numerous committees of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the National Science Foundation. Her continuing aim has been to preserve and strengthen the U.S. national capacity for innovation by increasing support for basic research in science and engineering. This is done in part by attracting talent from abroad and by expanding the domestic talent pool by attracting women and members of under-represented groups into careers in science. In 2004, she became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and chaired the AAAS board in 2005.
In spring 2007, she was awarded the Vannevar Bush Award for "a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy".
Jackson continues to be involved in politics and public policy. In 2008 she became the University Vice Chairman of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, a non-for profit group based in Washington, D.C.. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Jackson to serve on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a 20-member advisory group dedicated to public policy.
She was appointed an International Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (FREng) in 2012.
She received a Candace Award for Technology from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1982.
Jackson serves on the boards of directors of many organizations:New York Stock Exchange
Marathon Oil Corporation
Public Service Enterprise Group Incorporated
Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents
Council on Foreign Relations, Board of Directors
U.S. Council on Competitiveness, Vice Chair
Brookings Institution Trustee
The Hyde Collection, Board of Directors
Life Member of the MIT Corporation (MIT Board of Trustees)
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Past President (2004) and former Chair of the Board (2005)
Former Trustee of the Pingry School
Shirley Jackson is married to Morris A. Washington, a physics professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and has one son, Alan, a Dartmouth College alumnus.