“The Bunching Effect”: Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson and the Fight to Create Space for Black Women in STEM

For the August edition of our 'sySTEMic leaders' series, we take a look back at the life and legacy of Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson. One of the first Black women to graduate with a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, Jackson led a groundbreaking career in research, public policy, and academic leadership. Long before her many successes, though, she was a fierce advocate for diversity working to create space for Black and brown students in academia.


The trials and tribulations of her journey reveal a new element to what being a sySTEMic leader is all about, ultimately informing how we continue to carry the torch in the ongoing fight to create space for Black women in STEM.



In 1976, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson had recently accepted a position at Bell Laboratories, committing herself to the study of two-dimensional condensed matter systems. Jackson and her colleagues set their sights on, among a variety of pursuits, the complexities surrounding charge density waves. Fresh onto the scene, Jackson was soon on the brink of incredible discovery, observing the nature of electrons to cluster together in what they referred to as the “bunching effect.”[1]

The 30-year old had already made history just three years prior, becoming the first woman to earn a doctorate from MIT while simultaneously transitioning to work for the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.[2] Making history was something Jackson was no stranger to as a Black woman, having been born into a pre-Brown vs. Board of Education world; history was unraveling all around her. It was in those early days, though, that she would come to assert herself on a path towards writing her own history in ways unimaginable.

Jackson was a considerably bright child, her intelligence fostered by parents who encouraged her curiosity and affinity for science.[3] She was taking cues from the world around her, one that was rapidly changing; schools were being integrated, women were being liberated, and man was in a race to step foot on the moon. For a child of the 50s and 60s, a new dawn was on the horizon--this couldn’t have been more true for young Shirley Jackson.

Committed to her studies, Jackson excelled throughout her youth and graduated as valedictorian of her class. While the prospects of university for a student of her caliber should have been endless, setting your sights as a young Black woman in 1964 meant there were no guarantees you’d receive the opportunities you deserved and rightfully earned. Still, Jackson was encouraged by her assistant principal to apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[4] Her burgeoning interest in science had long been inspired by the world around her, one that now seemed to be waiting for her to assume her place. Upon being accepted, Jackson became one of the first Black students now afforded the opportunity to join the ranks of scholarship at the university.

Securing a spot at MIT was just one step on the road to an unprecedented career, one that would transcend industry bounds as well as racial barriers. Her steadfast commitment to research helped produce integral insights into charge densities, high-energy particles, and electron behaviors, fostering a better depth and breadth of multi-dimensional systems at play. During the 90s, Jackson pivoted towards the public sphere, becoming a faculty member at Rutgers while guiding policy for the state of New Jersey. Eventually, a call from President Bill Clinton would signal an even deeper dive into policy, as she was personally asked to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to oversee risk assessment for power plants. Finally, in 1999, Jackson made the transition towards leadership after becoming the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; throughout her tenure, Jackson has effectively expanded research initiatives and funding while securing efforts to diversify the student and faculty bodies.[5]

Jackson would go on to once again receive recognition from the West Wing, with President Barack Obama selecting her to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and then appointing her as co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.[6] By 2014, the young girl from D.C. had cemented her legacy as a pioneer, a tried-and-true tour de force of grit and excellence. Having nearly every card stacked against her, she persisted simply being the best as what she did. Carving out a lane for herself and basking in the glory might have been enough for some, but not for Jackson. She understood complex systems, the nuances and realities of how singular interactions can shape the course of entire bodies at large. Long before Jackson catapulted herself into the stratospheres of personal greatness, she was working to carve out lanes for others as well--even before she’d fully secured one for herself.

Back in the Fall of 1964, in a time before industry prestige and national recognition, young Shirley Jackson stepped into her new world at MIT. If starting university for any freshman is like being a small fish in a big pond, Jackson might as well have been thrown into the ocean. She was just one of a handful of Black students accepted in what was then still a volatile time for Black Americans. The trials and tribulations of being Black in America followed Jackson to the elite halls of MIT, as she can recall palpable feelings of isolation that went so far as to having students refuse to work with her.[7]

For Black women in today’s world, these feelings of isolation and insecurity have transcended. A 2014 study of Black women and their experiences navigating STEM found that almost across the board, participants confirmed that modern institutions are still plagued with yesterday’s malpractice--stereotyping, questions of ability, cultural isolation, and subordination.[8] Simply securing acceptance to a university or research institution is not a guarantee for career success, as Black women are then dealt with the unique task of navigating a traditionally white, male-dominated world. Within this world exists what can feel like a new language or code of customs, which Black women are forced to adapt to in the name of holding the spot they’ve worked so hard for.

Such was the case for Shirley Jackson, her plight amplified in the hyper-racialized world of the 1960s. For a while, she was able to fly under the radar and keep from stirring trouble; that is, until the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The horrific assassination of Dr. King at the height of the Civil Rights Movement sent shockwaves around the world, the country, and the halls of MIT. Jackson was moved in ways she hadn’t been before, emboldened by a new sense of purpose and defiance. Having spent nearly four years at the university--actively on her way to pursuing her doctorate--she knew the ins and outs of MIT and understood the relative power she had in her position. For Shirley Jackson, this trauma signaled a call to action for her and those around her. Being a loyal and capable student of physics, she knew exactly what to do; she organized. Jackson helped establish the university’s Black Student Union, cementing a platform and direction for Black voices to direct their energies. Together, Black students compiled a finite list of demands concerning funding and diversity initiatives for students and faculty.[9] In response to this swift mobilization with Jackson at the helm, the university was forced to comply. MIT would soon launch a formal Task Force on Equal Opportunity and extend an opportunity to Jackson herself.

Recognized as an agent for change, the university asked Jackson to travel around the Midwest as part of a larger effort to recruit minority students. She was able to see, hear, and feel the concerns of fellow Black and brown students and encourage them to pursue their passions just as she had. Communicating on a person-to-person level broadened her perception of what entering university meant, helping her recognize the continued struggle to adapt and succeed within predominantly white spaces. From this, Jackson was inspired to launch a summer program called “Project Interphase”, deliberately designed to prepare incoming students, close academic gaps, and establish a secure community for Black and brown folks.

While the university was gradually becoming receptive, enacting change would be fraught with resistance and fits of retaliation. MIT as a collective student body was not welcoming to the winds of change, framing Jackson and her fellow Black leaders as “radicals”[10]; ironically, in many ways, they were. Jackson and her peers were fighting to create space in a system emboldened by centuries of oppression, the sheer power of which often does require radical change. Jackson stayed true to form and encouraged her peers to remain confident, and they pressed on.

Her persistence worked. Only a year after her recruitment tour of the Midwest, nearly 57 Black students enrolled at MIT.[11] With the help of Project Interphase, they inhabited a more secure space devoted to support, guidance, and camaraderie. In just a few years, Jackson had established a space for herself and then expanded it to an entirely new world of fellow scholars.

Understanding the significance of creating space can be better done through science. That same 2014 study seeking to examine Black women’s experiences also presents the notion of an inherently connected nature between scholarship and the general community. Their broader analysis finds that “...participation in a community of practice is not simply a distinct educational activity, but a lens for analyzing the broader environment in which students engage (Herzig, 2004).”[12] Framing the acquisition of knowledge from a sociocultural perspective reinforces the importance of not only paying attention to the environment in question but fostering a more conducive one. Black women in academia enter a world that is not designed for them, forced to reckon with the collaborative, communicative, and personal requirements once granted access to this space. Their learning does not solely come from textbook and pen, but by working with people on a human level within a space that routinely isolates, stigmatizes, and oppresses them.

Dr. Jackson understood this in a way that was two-fold. On one level, she recognized the opportunity she had as someone who had been granted access to a space to then turn around and work to create space for others. On a deeper level, fostering a more diverse and inclusive space was vital to securing an environment best suitable for Black and brown folks to learn. Learning is often more personal than it’s cracked up to be, an intimate exchange of ideas, challenges, and support for one another in a continual stride towards understanding. Being the sole Black voice in a room is not only detrimental through the lens of representation, but it makes the actual process of learning that much more difficult in a practical sense.

Women in STEM continue to call for active community participation within spaces today. Lorena Soriano, founder of every Point One and recently featured in Forbes “30 Under 30”, cites the power achieved when women of color come together and form a community to surpass their shared sense of ‘imposter syndrome’[13] This perpetual feeling of not being up to par is reinforced by existing in a space that inherently shuts Black and brown folks out, making those who gain access to it question their worthiness. At a 2017 conference tackling diversity in STEM, Olivia Graeve, UC San Diego professor, concurred by encouraging peers to devote resources towards community-building for the severe impact it has on students’ success (per her own first-hand experience).[14] Women in STEM--particularly Black and brown women in STEM--rely on creating relative space out of necessity, as it directly correlates with their ability to survive and thrive in institutions designed to keep them out.

Reflecting on the work of Dr. Jackson is especially remarkable in context, considering her persistence to use whatever pull she had at that time to enact change around her. While that fight may have seemed daunting for some, Shirley Jackson understood the payout being a student of physics. Jackson and her colleagues explored the ‘bunching effect’ in one and two-dimensional systems, discovering electrons’ tendency to form unique patterns of clusters. By organizing in clusters and claiming space, these electrons have the capacity to, in turn, reshape the entire properties of the system itself.[15] In many ways, that’s just what Jackson was working to do for Black and brown students.

Creating space can be seen as a form of bunching, creating patterns of energy that can galvanize and effectively change the system at large. Dr. Jackson’s legacy stands as a testament to what coming together as a community can do, even under circumstances that may seem the most discouraging. Being a systemic leader in this regard requires using one’s voice and subsequent platform to create space for others, expanding the scope of opportunities to then restructure the environment for the better.

There’s an old saying from Oscar Wilde about the nature of life imitating art; for Shirley Jackson, life ultimately imitated science. Jackson was a scholar of physics in both theory and practice, utilizing what she knew about collective, shared energies to alter the general makeup of systems at large. Her courage and persistence continue to inform the many struggles at play in STEM today, and what is incumbent upon leaders to enact change. In scientific terms, with electron bunching comes the tangible shifting of systemic properties. For the world at large, with community comes change; change by virtue of reinforcement, support, and a celestial roadmap towards new horizons.

At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of science.



For more of our 'sySTEMic leaders' series, visit https://www.systemicflow.com/blog/categories/systemic-leaders


Footnotes [1] Amanda Schaffer. “The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson” MIT Technology Review, December 19, 2017,https://www.technologyreview.com/2017/12/19/146775/the-remarkable-career-of-shirley-ann-jackson/#:~:text=Shirley%20Ann%20Jackson%20%2768%2C%20PhD,of%20a%20major%20research%20university [2] TheHistoryMakers. “Shirley Ann Jackson” TheHistoryMakers, September 26, 2006, https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/shirley-ann-jackson-41 [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Amanda Schaffer. “The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson” [6] Rensselaer. “Office of the President: Biography” Rensselaer https://president.rpi.edu/president-biography [7] Amanda Schaffer. “The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson” [8] Charleston, Lavar & George, Phillis & Jackson, Jerlando & Berhanu, Jonathan & Amechi, Mauriell. (2014). “Navigating Underrepresented STEM Spaces: Experiences of Black Women in U.S. Computing Science Higher Education Programs Who Actualize Success.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. 7. 166-176. 10.1037/a0036632. [9] Amanda Schaffer. “The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson” [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid. [12] Charleston, Lavar & George, Phillis & Jackson, Jerlando & Berhanu, Jonathan & Amechi, Mauriell. (2014). “Navigating Underrepresented STEM Spaces: Experiences of Black Women in U.S. Computing Science Higher Education Programs Who Actualize Success.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. 7. 166-176. 10.1037/a0036632. [13] Rebekah Bastian. “Trailblazers: Lorena Soriano, STEM Diversity Advocate” Forbes, May 31, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/rebekahbastian/2020/05/31/trailblazers-lorena-soriano-stem-diversity-advocate/#79d756ab2a60 [14] Kristin Schafgans. “Leveraging Collective Impact to Increase Diversity in STEM” UC San Diego News Center, February 2, 2017, https://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/feature/leveraging_collective_impact_to_increase_diversity_in_stem [15] Amanda Schaffer. “The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson”

Sources Bastian, Rebekah. “Trailblazers: Lorena Soriano, STEM Diversity Advocate” Forbes, May 31, 2020. Accessed July 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rebekahbastian/2020/05/31/trailblazers-lorena-soriano-stem-diversity-advocate/#79d756ab2a60

Charleston, Lavar & George, Phillis & Jackson, Jerlando & Berhanu, Jonathan & Amechi, Mauriell. (2014). “Navigating Underrepresented STEM Spaces: Experiences of Black Women in U.S. Computing Science Higher Education Programs Who Actualize Success.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. 7. 166-176. 10.1037/a0036632. Accessed July 2020.

Rensselaer. “Office of the President: Biography” Rensselaer. Accessed July 2020. https://president.rpi.edu/president-biography

Schaffer, Amanda. “The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson” MIT Technology Review, December 19, 2017. Accessed July 2020. https://www.technologyreview.com/2017/12/19/146775/the-remarkable-career-of-shirley-ann-jackson/#:~:text=Shirley%20Ann%20Jackson%20%2768%2C%20PhD,of%20a%20major%20research%20university

Schafgans, Kristin. “Leveraging Collective Impact to Increase Diversity in STEM” UC San Diego News Center, February 2, 2017. Accessed July 2020. https://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/feature/leveraging_collective_impact_to_increase_diversity_in_stem

TheHistoryMakers. “Shirley Ann Jackson” TheHistoryMakers, September 26, 2006. Accessed July 2020. https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/shirley-ann-jackson-41

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