Shirley Ann Jackson, born in 1946, is known for a series of firsts. The theoretical physicist earned her bachelor's and doctoral degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the first black woman to do so. That academic accomplishment in 1973 also made her one of only two black women in the United States to receive a doctoral degree in physics [source: The New York Times]. In 1995, President Clinton appointed Jackson to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the first woman to hold the position. In addition, her stellar resume and public policy work advocating for STEM funding and innovation paved the way to her becoming the first African American woman to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering, to receive the Vannevar Bush award for lifetime achievements in science and to lead a top-50 national research university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute [source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute].
Of course, her accolades and achievements didn't come without intensive focus and intellectual rigor. After graduating from MIT, Jackson conducted a wide range of physics research at AT&T Bell Laboratories from 1976 to 1991. As Jackson's career developed, her public role as an advocate for science, education and innovation in the United States evolved as well. A year after she was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2004, Time magazine described her as "perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science" [source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute]. With the ripple effects of Jackson's tireless research and public outreach reaching from the AT&T laboratories to the White House, the magazine's assessment is almost an understatement.