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USMA Women’s History Event

Presented by Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

West Point Club
West Point, NY

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Thank you for inviting me to join you here today. It is both a privilege and an honor to speak at West Point. You are exemplars of those who take seriously service to our nation. My parents emphasized responsibility and service to all of their children from an early age.

My father, Sgt. George H. Jackson, served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and he was part of the Normandy Invasion—at Omaha Beach. Although he was in a segregated unit, he received a Bronze Star for on-site repair of amphibious assault vehicles, called DUKWs, whose rudder cables had broken.  According to the final citation for his award, he “displayed outstanding ability in designing and constructing a cable splice, the use of which eliminated a serious threat to the successful operation of two and one-half ton amphibious trucks.” Using salvaged copper waterproofing cables from jeeps and trucks, the cable splice he designed and constructed became the “standard of procedure” in the war in France for all rudder cable breaks. 

Before his work, these broken rudder cables had presented a mechanical problem that had never been solved. His process enabled repairmen to reuse old, broken cable many times, and even permitted the use of control cables from Messerschmitts shot down over the beach. His method was adopted by every DUKW outfit in France, and was taught back in the United States. 

My father was proud to be a veteran and to have contributed his skills and creativity to the Allied victory.

I personally thank each of you for your service, your dedication, and your devotion to our nation.

Coming from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest civilian engineering University in the United States, I am well aware that the US Military Academy is an even older engineering-oriented institution. In terms of culture, history, and commitment to rigorous preparation, many of you are engaged with science and technology at a deep level. And, I ask you to take your knowledge, enthusiasm, and understanding of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM subjects–and do your part in encouraging the next generation, especially the girls, to enter scientific and technological fields.

I ask this not just because, as I am sure you understand, many girls who would find their true vocations in these fields will not get the opportunity unless they have both advocates and mentors, but because the security of the United States depends upon our nation continuing to develop our own STEM professionals—and we are not doing that sufficiently.

For over a decade, I have been speaking about the “Quiet Crisis.” Between retirements and a shrinking population of those traditionally recruited into engineering and science, we are facing shortages in these professionals at the very time when we have a greater need for scientists and engineers. Our economy, our defense, and the U.S. role as a global leader require more, not fewer STEM professionals.

Let me illustrate with an example of what advances in science and technology offer. In October 2004 in Afghanistan, a mortar exploded, and a U.S. Marine Corporal (Isaias Hernandez) was nearly ripped apart by shrapnel, which tore away seventy percent of the muscle in his right thigh, and fractured his femur. Corporal Hernandez endured four years of surgeries and physical therapy—to little effect, until he met Dr. Stephen Badylak of the McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, who cut open the Corporal’s thigh, and applied a new gel-based therapy—an extracellular matrix—derived from pig bladders.

The extracellular matrix fills the space around the body’s cells. It contains hormones, structural proteins, and other molecules that maintain cell function and health, mediate inter-cellular communication, and, importantly, guide tissue growth. After about six weeks, the implanted gel mixture spurred the growth of muscle tissue, tendons, and vasculature, and, with it, restored physical strength to the marine’s thigh.

The extracellular matrix becomes part of the existing tissue; it draws stem cells to the implant location; it shifts the body’s immune response from rejection to reconstruction. By recruiting the body’s own stem cells and putting them to work, the extracellular matrix obviates the need for controversial and difficult stem cell implants. Think of it as a kind of biological catalyst. The work I have described is part of a U.S. government-supported regenerative medicine research program at the University of Pittsburgh.

The work draws upon a multiplicity of disciplines including biomedical engineering, nanotechnology, tissue engineering, drug discovery, and health informatics. Getting full value from such work requires more people of talent entering STEM fields, not fewer. But we face a future where we may not have enough scientists and engineers.

There is only one way that we can satisfy the need for more STEM professionals – we must encourage more of our young people to enter these areas, and we must increase the participation of minorities and women in these fields. So, with your expertise and knowledge, we need you to reach out in a special way to younger generations.

How can you do this? As you already know, there are barriers to the full participation in science and technology across all of our communities. How does one overcome these obstacles? I believe four key ingredients are required:

First, there must be preparation. The hard work of building capabilities cannot be ignored. One must extend one’s knowledge and develop one’s talents. Given the rigorous, focused approach of the Academy, I have no doubt that, not only are each of you prepared, but that you have lifelong habits that will keep you at the top of your fields.

Second, character plays a role. The integrity and values that are put into action on a daily basis by one who seeks to overcome obstacles allow that person to deal effectively with resistance to his or her ambitions. Again, this has been an essential part of your education, and I trust that your personal commitment to maintaining a strong moral character will support you throughout your lives.

Third, a woman (and I could say, anyone) who seeks to open the door of opportunity must have something special, something to offer—such as a talent or perspective—that provides real benefits.

And fourth, opportunity must exist. Since I began my career, many structural limits to equal opportunity have been removed. You will be among the first women to be allowed to serve as combatants. But nationally, and internationally, we still have work to do to expand opportunity.

The barriers to the achievement of excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have been both lowered and raised in my lifetime. Currently, barriers remain—in terms of a lack of sufficient investment in these disciplines, and in the people who would pursue them. This also is reflected in the continued under-participation of women and minorities in science and engineering. I am hopeful that we can reverse these trends.

Let me backtrack over a bit of personal history, which shows what can happen when family support, motivation and confidence, preparation and opportunity all come together. During my pre-college education, an academic tracking system was introduced in the public schools in Washington, D.C.—to divide up classes based on aptitude. As I was coming of age, I went from attending racially segregated to integrated public schools in Washington, D.C., as a consequence of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision. This led to the desegregation of public schools, which occurred in Washington D.C. the year after the Supreme Court ruling.  In addition, as a consequence of the Soviet launch of the Sputnik I satellite, national attention was riveted on preparing young people in science and mathematics. I benefitted from all of that. 

Because this was in the post-Brown decision period, some people believed that aptitude-based academic tracking was an attempt at re-segregation of the public schools—through academic segregation. I will tell you that, if the intent was to put me behind a wall, it failed. I did well on the test that determined who took accelerated classes. I leapt over that obstacle because of family support and expectation, my abilities, the confidence I had developed, and because of my attention to my studies—good preparation.

Our accelerated classes were smaller, were taught by great teachers, and provided more competition.  In the end, we finished the standard college preparatory curriculum by the end of our junior year and took college and AP-level courses.  By the end of high school, I had developed strong capabilities in science, and particularly in math. I also worked as a volunteer in the principal’s office, and, because of this, the boys’ vice principal came to know me (there were boys’ vice principals and girls’ vice principals in those days). It was he who suggested I apply to MIT, because of my academic performance and standing.

Now, I spoke earlier of opportunity. In this case, the reason I was given the advice I received was because I, as a volunteer, was in the right place at the right time, in a situation where my abilities were recognized. I also was well-prepared and had performed very well academically.  Woody Allen famously said, “Half of success is showing up.” But the key other half is preparation. Sometimes, we are able to create our own opportunities, sometimes they occur even when we are not looking for them, sometimes someone, or something, opens a door. But we always must be prepared to take advantage of opportunity—however it arrives.  West Point graduates have demonstrated the wisdom of this on the battlefield time and time again.

I applied and was accepted to MIT. I went off to that academic wonderland — financially supported by my family, my church, and by two major scholarships from the Martin Marietta Corporation and the Prince Hall Grand Masons (of Washington, D.C.). MIT presented new challenges. As you all know, the curriculum at that university, especially in a subject like physics, tests and stretches the best of students. A common practice for dealing with coursework was for students to work together in study groups.

Now, I had no real problem with the academics. However, I found myself isolated. Other students would not even sit next to me in class. None joined me for meals in the cafeteria, and, if I joined them, they suddenly needed to be somewhere else. When it came to studying, my attempts to join study groups were met with the explicit directive to “go away.”

Now, of course this was hurtful, but it also could have put me at an academic disadvantage. I found out later that I also was excluded by graduate students and faculty who made prior problem sets and past exams available for study by the undergraduate students they chose to help. I was forced to learn on my own, and to develop skills of concentration and persistence beyond those of a number of my peers.

I believe that an element of the isolation came from inaccurate expectations, at that time, on the part of people at MIT. This is a common barrier faced by minority students, and women, even today. Now, I nonetheless did very well academically at MIT. But, many students do not perform well in school because of the low expectations of their teachers. It is damaging to be subject to the distorted expectations of people from whom one is trying to learn, and to be subject to stereotypical distortions in social situations. I have learned that, in such situations, one way to get caught behind a barrier is to let others define who you are.

It may be hard to keep the self-confidence needed for self-definition, but self-understanding and the determination not to be limited by what others expect is an essential part of being able to make the most of your talents and to take advantage of opportunities in life.

I did not let the challenges I faced at MIT hold me back. I also was able to respond positively to the emotional impact of this isolation. I easily could have become resentful or even have been defeated—based on the pain that was inflicted—real pain that I felt. However, in life, you may not have control over what happens to you, but you always have control over how you choose to react.

In any case, I was able to establish myself at MIT as a successful and promising student. I also came to believe that others should not have to face the same challenges that I had faced. So, with other African-American students, I cofounded the Black Students Union on the MIT campus—with the intent of making some changes, beginning with increasing the awareness of some of the inequities that existed. We faced resistance, and I can recall some heated conversations with senior members of the M.I.T. administration.

Ultimately, we were heard, and we began work to change the academic and social construct at MIT. This included a number of initiatives. Among them was an active effort to recruit more African-American students to MIT. We were able to move from having just a handful (three to five per class) to 57 in the freshman class entering in the fall of 1969. In addition, we created support for these students in the form of academic summer programs, camaraderie and study groups.

These represented real gains, and, though I do not believe the job at MIT is completed—even today, together, we were able, at the time, to build a ramp over the barriers, and to launch many successful careers of minority graduates of MIT.

I was able to overcome barriers, to build a successful scientific career, first as a researcher at Bell Laboratories and as a professor at Rutgers University, and, eventually, to use my talents and capabilities in government service, as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Today, as President of Rensselaer, I continue to serve our government as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), and as a member of the International Security Advisory Board to the U.S. Secretary of State and Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security (ISAB). I also am able to contribute to the business and public policy worlds -- as a member of the Boards of Directors of major corporations and as a member of, and major contributor to, a number of public policy activities, organizations, and think-tanks.

These important roles enable me to influence science, technology and public policy—nationally and globally, to raise awareness of the importance of science and technology for the national and larger public good, and to create opportunities in these fields for others.

Along the way, I have looked for opportunities to raise awareness of the Quiet Crisis, to develop policy that will support students, and encourage others to join in this effort.  There have been some notable successes. In the field of biology, for example, there actually are more women (58%) than men. But, in other areas, such as computer science and in many branches of engineering, the participation of women is under twenty percent.

We have made progress, but not enough. Many attitudes and structural problems that especially work against women who might enter STEM fields, or even enter and then leave, persist. Even though the need is great, we will face resistance as we work to bring more women and minorities into science and technology. But, obstacles can be overcome.

Let me tell you about a woman from the early days of America. She lived not far from here, just outside Newburgh, NY. Jane Colden was the first (mid-1700s) female botanist of note in North America. She achieved this despite an inadequate education, living at the edge of civilization, and facing a culture that mocked “philosophical ladies.” She was the daughter of a prominent New York family before the American Revolution. She was educated in the so-called “gentler arts”, but denied the more rigorous education that her brothers received.

At that time, collecting and categorizing plants was an important step towards independence in the colonies, one advocated by many patriots, including Benjamin Franklin. They wanted to discover resources that would build an indigenous economy.

During this time, a Swedish botanist and explorer named Carolus (Carl) Linnaeus became the first to frame principles for defining natural genera and species of organisms, and to create a uniform system for naming them (binomial nomenclature).

Jane’s father, Cadwallader Colden, wanted to work in botany, and he was intrigued by the new Linnaeus classification system—but he needed help.

Though she was only in her teens, Jane Colden’s father  recognized her intelligence and aptitude for science. He asked her to become his assistant, and she, reluctantly, agreed – but she came to love the work.

Over time, her own accomplishments—finding, classifying, drawing, and making detailed notes on plants found in this part of New York—exceeded that of her father, and so impressed the top scientists of America that they would travel to the Colden farm to consult with her.

Her fame spread to Europe, but, ultimately, Linnaeus himself, who did not believe women should be scientists, opposed her and worked to deny any credit she might receive.

In time, Jane Colden and her family were driven from her home by the French and Indian War, and she was married off to an older man. She disappeared from history for 100 years. But her careful work, collected in a single volume that found its way to Europe, reemerged around 1900 at the perfect time to inspire a new generation of women scientists in America.  Her major manuscript on the description of plants is now part of the Botany Library of the British Museum in Kensington, London, UK.

How her work made its way to England is its own story, but Jane Colden prevailed over time and authority and tradition. And many of us, in turn, have been inspired because her work showed that American women deserved a place in science.

Women like Jane Colden cracked open the window of opportunity, making it possible for you, and me, to pass through that window, and achieve hopes and dreams.

Every generation faces its own challenges. The formula for taking on these challenges remains the same: preparation plus character plus “something special” plus recognizing and taking advantage when the window of opportunity opens.

This formula allows one to make a difference in service, in working for justice, in compassion, and in confronting the many challenges our world faces. As you continue to work as hard as you have, I simply advise this: always act with integrity, understand what you have to offer, and offer it.

As you pursue your careers, both within the Army and in civilian life, open the window a little wider for those who follow. How? Do great work, mentor, and prevail. Reach back and lend a hand to someone else. The lesson of Women’s History Month is both a profound appreciation of those, like Jane Colden—who have pioneered for us, and a call to action, so that we will leave a legacy for future generations of women (and men) who will discover knowledge, solve the problems, and create the means for a stronger, more vital America, as I know all of you will.

Thank you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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