Shirley Ann Jackson

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ORAL HISTORIES
Portrait of Shirley Jackson

Credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
July 17 and July 22, 2020
Location
video conference
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Interview of Shirley Ann Jackson by David Zierler on July 17 and 22, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/XXXX

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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Jackson recounts her family heritage and describes her upbringing in Washington DC and her early experiences attending segregated schools and visiting the Smithsonian museums. She considers some of the opportunities that came with being high school valedictorian, and she describes the circumstances leading to her undergraduate admission at MIT. Jackson discusses the discrimination she encountered during college and describes her experience amid campus protests against the Vietnam War. She describes her undergraduate thesis on tunneling density states in superconducting niobium-titanium alloys, and she explains why the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. was central to her decision to remain at MIT for graduate school. Jackson describes her thesis research officially under the direction of Jim Young but in reality more with Roman Jackiw. She discusses her experience as a postdoctoral researcher Fermilab, where she continued her thesis research on one-particle inclusive reactions, and then CERN, where she worked as a fellow of the Ford Foundation, and from which she used as a home base to travel in Europe. Jackson describes her subsequent work at Bell Labs where she focused on the electronic and optical properties of layered materials. She explains her decision to join the faculty at Rutgers University and she describes the moment not long after when President Clinton asked her to become the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Jackson recounts the history and structure of the NRC and she shares her views on the role of nuclear power as an energy sources and as part of the solution for climate change. She describes the interplay between regulation and private industry from her vantage point of leading the NRC and the responsibility of ensuring safety in the civilian nuclear energy industry. Jackson discusses her work as a board member of the New York Stock Exchange, and she explains the circumstances that led to her being named President of RPI. She describes the process for establishing a mandate and a vision for the university as she assumed leadership. Jackson discusses her work in the Obama administration as a member of PCAST and the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, and she explains why as president of a university it is important not to get caught up in the political controversies of any particular day. She shares her views on the importance of diversity and inclusivity in higher education and she describes how RPI has dealt with broader issues of racial justice in 2020. Jackson discusses her work on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus task force, and what she has learned from the pandemic. She describes why being awarded the National Medal of Science is so important to her personally and she reflects on her contributions in physics, and particularly on the properties of unique two-dimensional systems. At the end of the interview, Jackson describes her central focus on guiding RPI through the pandemic and championing environmental issues.

Transcript

David Zierler:

OK. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 17th, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here today with Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson. Dr. Jackson, thank you so much for being with me today. It’s a great honor.

Shirley Ann Jackson:

Well, my pleasure, thank you.

Zierler:

OK, so to start, please tell me your title and institutional affiliation.

Jackson:

Well, I am president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I am a professor of physics, applied physics and astronomy, and professor of engineering sciences at Rensselaer.

Zierler:

OK. Wonderful. And now let’s take it right back to the beginning. Tell me about your parents and where they’re from.

Jackson:

Both of my parents grew up in rural Virginia in Louisa County, which is about 80 to 100 miles south of Washington, D.C. My mother went to college, and she did some graduate work, but her mother passed away when she was quite young. I think she was 15 years old. Her older siblings had a big role in taking care of her because her father worked on the railroad. He was a Pullman porter.

My father grew up in Virginia and then partly in D.C. His father died when he was about 3 years old, and his mother later remarried, so he had half-brothers. My father did not graduate from high school, but he was very gifted in math and mechanical things. And my father in fact—well, there’re two interesting things—actually there are many interesting things [laugh] about my father. But, first, my father’s father died in 1918, in Philadelphia. Now I don’t know if you remember what was happening then.

Zierler:

A hundred years ago, the flu.

Jackson:

The Spanish flu. He had gone to Philadelphia to work. He was a very young man. And interestingly enough, Philadelphia was one of the places that had the highest death rate because there was a parade, a big gathering that people insisted upon having, I think related to the war [World War I].

Zierler:

This eerily sounds like the present. That’s remarkable.

Jackson:

Well, he died of pneumonia, so we don’t know for sure. But there’s a fairly high likelihood that it could’ve been due to the Spanish flu. So that is on my mind these days as I think about what’s going on, and even as I think about our young people, even though many people believe the young are not as affected as old people like me. [laugh] So, both of my parents lost a parent quite young—my father very young. My father though served in World War II. Of course he was in a segregated unit, yet he was also in Normandy or D-Day.

Zierler:

What branch did he serve in?

Jackson:

In the US Army, he was a sergeant, and he received a Bronze Star. There were these amphibious landing vehicles that took supplies and some troops to shore, and the rudders kept breaking. My father figured out how to create a special mechanical splice.

Zierler:

Oh, wow.

Jackson:

The mechanical splice held, and allowed them to steer these boats. For that, he received a Bronze Star. His method ended up being taught as part of maintenance companies in France, and even to those who were going to deploy from the US into Europe. So that’s quite interesting with my father.

And then my mother … My mother’s older siblings took good care of her, and one of her brothers saved up some money to help her go to college. My mother actually ended up going to a boarding school for high school because there were no public high schools for colored girls at that time in that part of Virginia. There was a school called the Virginia Randolph School, and that’s where she went.

After that, my mother went to a college called St. Paul’s, and then she did some graduate work. I think it was at Hampton. My mother taught for a while in rural Virginia, and when she and my father got together, she moved. During the war, she lived in New Jersey in Newark, and worked in things related to the war because my father was deployed out of Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.

Zierler:

Where did your parents meet?

Jackson:

I’m not sure. I think they met in Washington, D.C., but they actually grew up within a certain proximity of each other in Virginia.

Zierler:

Did they come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds?

Jackson:

Well, I guess you could ask what that meant in the following sense. Remember, my parents were born in 1915. So this was actually only 50 years after they ended the Civil War. One could say that my mother’s family was pretty well off, and both of them in a way. My mother’s family owned a large home and some property, because of the job my grandfather had, and they were really tied to the land.

Similarly, with my father, he spent time with his grandmother in rural Virginia, and she owned land. And so to that extent, they were well off—and the land stayed in my father’s family for a long time. My mother’s family, due to some things that I don’t know totally, lost the property. However, many of the relatives who are from that root still live in the Greater Richmond Area in Louisa County.

My cousins have kept the house that they grew up in, where my mother’s oldest sister lived with her husband, and my mother stayed with her as well. She was the one who was the matriarch once my mother’s mother passed away. So they had, in their way, pretty stable lives, and many of them stayed fairly close to where they grew up.

Zierler:

Did you get the sense growing up, did they ever talk about any limitations or discrimination they felt in their own lives? Did they feel that or did they ever share those kinds of stories with you?

Jackson:

Well, you know, they were growing up in rural Virginia. My mother had some incidents, with people being threatening and trying to encroach on their property, but her brothers tended to take care of that.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

And then when my parents bought the home that I grew up in for most of the time in Washington, D.C., my father had to go through a route with a white person to get the house because of restrictive covenants. I didn’t learn about that until later.

After the war my father went to work for the Postal Service. Since he was very mechanically gifted, he rose through the ranks. And when he retired, he was in charge of all vehicle operations for the vehicle fleet for the Postal Service in D.C.

Zierler:

Did he go straight back to Washington D.C. after the war, after coming home?

Jackson:

Yes, they went back to Washington. My mother ultimately became a social worker, and she worked in that area until she retired.

Zierler:

What neighborhood in D.C. was the house where you grew up?

Jackson:

We were kind of at a border point. It sat between what was called the Petworth area and Takoma Park in Northwest Washington.

Zierler:

Was it a diverse neighborhood?

Jackson:

Well, when we moved in, it was mainly white. By the time I left high school, it was mainly African-American, with still some integration.

Zierler:

Did your father talk about his experiences during the war?

Jackson:

No, not really.

Zierler:

Part of that generation, the silent generation?

Jackson:

Right. Much of what we’ve learned came from research that one of my sisters did of his war service, and she found the Bronze Star and the citation and a picture of him with the first Black general, Benjamin O’Davis, and some newspaper articles that were actually written about what he had done.

Zierler:

Now perhaps not about service, but did he ever talk about any hypocrisy he might’ve felt about serving in a segregated unit while fighting for his country?

Jackson:

No, my father was pretty patriotic, and he did his service, and he came back, and built a career that he could, and took care of his family. My parents were very self-contained, and they didn’t spend time espousing a lot of bitterness or regaling us with tales of what had happened to them. They took care of us.

Zierler:

Now because of your father’s mechanical and mathematical abilities, I wonder if you think, given better opportunities, he would’ve pursued a graduate degree himself?

Jackson:

My father easily could’ve been an engineer, a mechanical engineer, something like that. But, he grew up in a different time, and he went to work early. That’s why he didn’t finish high school—because he had to take care of himself. My mother, because she was the youngest in her family, her older siblings took care of her, especially since she was so young when her mother passed away.

Zierler:

Did you go to public or private schools growing up?

Jackson:

All public. In fact, I went to segregated schools initially, up until about the fourth grade, fifth grade, when the schools were integrated. And then, slowly were becoming de facto re-segregated by the time I graduated, but not completely, but it was all public schools. And when the schools were integrated after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, they put into place what people considered a controversial system, but it was one that benefited me. It was a “tracking system” and there were four tracks: so-called basic, business, college prep, and honors.

In this system, one was tested in the sixth grade. Originally, it was an IQ test, which is what I took. Later it became more like an achievement test. Based on how one did, one was placed in one of these four tracks. So I ended up in the honors track, and what distinguished this track was it was an accelerated track. The acceleration started in the seventh grade, and I actually finished the college prep curriculum at the end of the 11th grade, so I could’ve graduated.

The senior year was spent taking a combination of what we would call AP [Advanced Placement] courses today, and some college-level courses. So I ended up having calculus and physics and advanced grammar and composition, economics, and then I took six years of Latin, and things like that. So I had a pretty good background. I was my high school valedictorian, and did well on the SATs, so I ended up going to MIT.

Zierler:

I’m curious, Dr. Jackson, as a small child before the school was integrated, did you know, were you aware that you were living in a segregated kind of school environment? Was that something that was even apparent to you before it was integrated?

Jackson:

Sure because, one, before we moved into the house we were in, we lived elsewhere in D.C., and my sisters and I had to take a long bus ride on the public buses, and we had to fend for ourselves. We looked out for each other because we had to go to the school that was the “Black” elementary school. It was called Charles Young. When we moved to the house where the neighborhood was more integrated, we still had to ride past the school that was closest to us because the schools had not been desegregated. So we had to ride past the schools that were within walking distance to go to the school for Negroes.

And so—in those days, we didn’t have lots of cars and all of that. The fathers organized a car pool to take those of us who were the Negro kids, and they alternated to take us to school, and to bring us back. But then after the schools were integrated, I could walk to school.

Zierler:

Did your parents emphasize the importance of education?

Jackson:

Always. My mother had us reading before we went to kindergarten, and she read to us all the time when we were young. She was always interested in what I was doing, particularly the language arts. And my father was always interested in what I was doing, particularly regarding math and science.

Even as we got older, if people saw us together, we were spending probably more time reading together—meaning I had my novel, someone had a newspaper, someone was reading a magazine—and we enjoyed each other’s company as we were reading. So we read a lot. We’ve always done that, including my father. So it was an interesting family—and even today, my sisters talk about our readings.

Zierler:

Now in terms of the long narrative of starting to think of yourself as a scholar and as a scientist, I’m curious, maybe during your teenage years, who are some of the most formative people who encouraged you to think along those lines, that you would be able to accomplish such things?

Jackson:

Well, I think you have to back up a little bit because even before then, before I was a teenager, I used to collect live bumblebees. And there was a space under our back porch, it was elevated—there was a crawlspace but they were kind of the boards supporting things. So I would keep the live bees in jars on those boards. Then I would do my own little experiments with exposing them to varying amounts of light and darkness, and feed them different kinds of things—things from the flowers, but also sugar and other things, and observe and log their behaviors. I tried to let them go before they died. I never had any interest in having a dead insect collection.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

I was more interested in live things, and how they interacted with their environments.

Zierler:

So you were a scientist even from your younger days?

Jackson:

Right, but more probably on the biological side, and you could call it environmental side. But at the same time, I had this intense interest and ability in math, and so those two things—my interest in the world, and my math interest and ability—is how I ultimately ended up being a physicist. We lived fine, but we didn’t have a lot of money, so I spent time a lot at the Smithsonian growing up—at the Air and Space Museum as well as the National Museum of Natural History. I also spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress especially at the beginning and late—we called it junior high; you’d call it middle school.

In those days, we could go to the Library of Congress, and just work there, do homework, read. I loved doing that, so I would actually go there to study, and particularly when it was time for exams, but also just to read. There was also a library called the Central Library, and it was a bus ride away, while the Library of Congress was quite far, and so I spent a lot of time at the Central Library.

There was also a local library that was within walking distance. So in the summer, I would go there and take out the maximum number of books we could, which was five. I’d read through them, and then ride my bicycle, and take them back, and get five more. In the summer especially, I would get up and do my chores, and then many times I’d spend the rest of the day reading.

Zierler:

Did your parents talk about politics when you were growing up? Were you aware of what their political views were?

Jackson:

Not especially. My father read a lot of things about the economy, about the politics, about decisions. We did spend time talking about the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and what it meant, and how it would change our lives overall and from the school perspective.

Zierler:

What did your parents tell you how the Brown v. Board decision would affect your life?

Jackson:

That we could go to the school that was around the corner. [laugh]

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

And that the competition might be different. There would be more kids, and ironically, that we might see more of the kids that lived in the neighborhood, because remember we had to leave the neighborhood to go to the Negro school. And that’s what happened.

There’s an interesting story. I had a classmate—starting in elementary school, but especially through high school—and he and I were neck and neck. And he was in math, and did very well, and I also did very well in math and other things. We probably would’ve been co-valedictorians but he transferred. His father was, I believe, a math professor, and so they ended up moving to another state.

I forget where he went to undergrad school, but I remember in those days standing in line to register for grad school after I had decided to stay at MIT. And I’m in the line, and there’s a guy who says, “Shirley,” and he says, “Hi, this is Bob.” And this is this guy I knew from way back when. He ended up in mathematics, he got his doctorate in math at MIT, and became a math professor. And I got my doctorate in physics, and I’ve done what I’ve done.

Zierler:

So as valedictorian, obviously you were strong across the board. When did you know academically that it was math and science that you would pursue professionally?

Jackson:

Well, you know, it’s interesting. People ask me those questions a lot as if there’s kind of a deliberateness about it.

Zierler:

Sure.

Jackson:

It was kind of more an inherent-ness about it—I loved math and I loved science. I loved learning, and when it came to formal study, I lean more to the physical sciences. But I also loved the biology, and if biology then was the way biology is today, I could probably have equally ended up in biology.

People ask me, “Would you ever go back to doing physics, or what would you do something different?” Actually, if I go back to doing any work that resembles research, I’m more likely to think about computational biology, molecular biology, and genomics. It’s very interesting. So it’s almost as if I started that way, I ended up in physics, and now I’m coming back that way but where physics and math heavily come into play. So maybe we’ll have a chance to talk about that.

Zierler:

OK. Did you have good math and science teachers in high school?

Jackson:

I had an excellent math teacher, really good biology, not so good in the physical sciences, especially physics. So it’s interesting. I had a physics teacher who would say things like, “Well, you seem to know more than I know.”

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

We would come to class, and he would say, “Well, you teach the class today.” So I did and—

Zierler:

Do you remember the topic that day?

Jackson:

I think we were looking at wave motion. But, no, it wasn’t just one day. It started when we were talking about wave motion. He actually would just come to class, and not teach. And so he would say, “Well, you just teach.” And as I said, so I did. I actually taught the classes quite a few times because I was typically ahead of where the nominal assignments were.

Zierler:

I’m curious, Dr. Jackson, besides the mastery of the textbooks, were you captivated by some of the larger things that were going on in science in the ’50s and the ’60s in terms of DNA or the Space Race? Did you pay attention to those sort of larger macroscopic issues?

Jackson:

The Space Race had a very huge effect on my life because my father would take us down to the mall, right outside the Smithsonian. We would go through, and we’d talk about the different rockets, and about Mercury, and the Apollo program, and so forth. And so that was one element.

The other element I spoke to you about was the honors program and the related acceleration. One reason people said it came about was because of the school integration. But here’s the real thing—they have the Brown decision, and the next year they start integrating the public schools in D.C., I think because it was D.C. Within two years of that, the Space Race really took off because of the space program, and because the Soviets sent up the Sputnik 1 satellite. So that really riveted the attention of people on math and science. Because of that, these special programs got started. And I tested into that honors program.

And so all of those factors, this coalescence of school integration, the lead-up to the Apollo program, and the Space Race, actually influenced my life—both because I had that pathway to the accelerated program, but also because it was very math and science heavy. That was my forte, and that was where my interest was, so I was really quite enamored.

Here’s the interesting thing. I certainly was aware of the various astronauts, but they were not especially my role models or my heroes. It’s more that I had interest in the subject matter. Does that make sense to you?

Zierler:

Sure. The science that makes it possible, not the people who are up in the air?

Jackson:

Well, it’s the science and the scientists, and all the people behind the scenes. You have to have somebody [laugh] who’s willing to ride the rocket. But they would never have the rocket, and the rocket would never go, without the science and technology.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, how well-traveled were you in your teenage years? Would your family go beyond Washington? Did you have access to far away vacation places?

Jackson:

Well, for us, going on a vacation—I’ll tell you two things. Going on a vacation meant two things. It meant going and spending some time, usually a few weeks, with my great-grandmother on my father’s side at her place in Virginia. Remember, I told you that his grandmother owned this property in rural Virginia. So every summer, we would go there, and spend time for a few weeks in the summer. So that was my camp experience.

Secondly, travel meant visiting relatives. Because a lot of my relatives were in Virginia, and because of the closeness of my mother to her siblings in Virginia, and my father’s link to the land that his grandmother had in Virginia, that’s where we would go and visit. It was interesting because I think our parents did not sort of make a point of it, but we lived it.

Let me explain. If we went to visit our relatives in Virginia, it was about a 100-mile ride, and in those days, you didn’t have Interstate 95, and so on. So you would be taking Route 1 or a road like that. So we couldn’t stop at any commercial place to buy anything or to use the rest facilities. That was just not done, and we wouldn’t have been served anyway.

So we had to get through that 100 miles without stopping. So before we went, there was a lot of preparation. My mother would make sandwiches. She would make Kool-Aid, and put it in a big thermos, a cooler, and she would take another extra jug of water, and I’ll explain that.

She would take tissues like Kleenex. She would take toilet paper. And for an hour before we left, we never had anything to drink. Why? Because we couldn’t stop at a rest area because they were really pretty rural—not because they were rural but because they wouldn’t serve us. That’s what being rural meant.

So if we did need a rest break, that’s what the toilet paper was for—we’d have to go off into the woods. The jug of water—and she always carried a bar of soap—was to put water on our hands to wash, and then wipe with these other tissues. So that’s how we traveled, just to go 100 miles.

So you asked me about whether my parents talked about these things, and the issue was we lived them, and we had to make a lot of excess preparation to work around them. Similarly, my father never told us about what he had to go through to get the house we lived in. But I found out later from my mother and my sister who does a lot of family research.

And so my parents weren’t telling us about issues. They were just raising us to have certain values, to be well-educated, literate, and to work hard. They worked hard. That’s how I grew up. It wasn’t that I was sheltered, because I lived it. I had to ride the public buses across town, past the white schools to go to the Black school. When we traveled we couldn’t stop at rest areas. If we went to certain theaters that were not in the African or the—we now say the African-American areas—the Negro areas—if we could go in, we had to sit in the balcony. We couldn’t sit in the orchestra. I lived all of that. And then I lived more of that when I went to MIT.

Zierler:

Right. And one of the reasons I asked about vacations is I’m trying to establish the mindset of the first idea that MIT was a place that would be available to you, just—not in terms of academically but just in terms of how far away it was. So I’m curious, who came up with the idea of MIT? Did you say one day, “This is where I want to go?”

Jackson:

Well, two people. At the time I was in school, we had what was called the assistant principal for girls, and the assistant principal for boys. And the assistant principal for girls was a white female. The assistant principal for boys was an African-American male.

He felt that because of my accomplishments and ability that I should think about a place like MIT. Simultaneously, my father knew about or learned about MIT, and he thought I should go to MIT. So that’s how I ended up thinking about and ultimately applying and going to MIT.

Zierler:

What about you? Did you think—did that seem like a crazy notion to you when they first suggested MIT?

Jackson:

No, because I was very interested in math and science, and I thought I might be a mathematician, and it seemed like the perfect place. I thought there would be other people like me, and it would be fun.

Zierler:

Did you have a sense of how path breaking a decision this would be, even as an 18-year-old?

Jackson:

You know, I don’t want you to think I was oblivious to things. It’s just that I never dwelt on the "pathbreakingness," and more about—

Zierler:

The science?

Jackson:

—the science and what I wanted to do, and what I would have to do to be successful. And, yes, it did come up because my mother was not especially enamored of my going because she felt that I might be the only Black or Black female at MIT, and she was almost right. There was one other African-American woman in my class, and we turned out to be the first two African-American women to graduate from MIT.

Everybody looks at my PhD, but actually my classmate and I were the first two African-American women to graduate. There were others—at least one other who had come earlier, but she didn’t stay. She didn’t graduate.

Zierler:

What do you think the source of your mother’s concern would be, that there would be so few other people like you at MIT?

Jackson:

Because she had been doing some reading about Boston, about South Boston, and there was some racial strife going on there, and because Jack the Ripper had been active there not too long before. She read about MIT, and she didn’t see that there were many, or any, Negroes or African Americans. So it was because of the dearth of them at MIT, the racial strife in Boston, and having a serial killer who had been running around killing people. That’s why she didn’t want me to go. [laugh]

Zierler:

That’s scary for anybody. [laugh]

Jackson:

Right, right.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, can you sort of set the stage? Do you remember vividly when you first got to campus what it felt like for you?

Jackson:

Well, it was kind of interesting. I mean, it was probably in its way intimidating, but not excessively so. You have to understand I was kind of a nerd, you know, and I’m much more outgoing now.

Zierler:

You’re also a city girl, so it’s sort of in an urban environment. I wonder if that was an easy transition for you.

Jackson:

Yes and no. I was not intimidated by the city because I had grown up in the city. But I had never been around that many white people before [laugh] in my life in a direct way, even though I went through this segregation-desegregation. But the idea of living with people was a little different.

And everybody was smart. In a way, some of them wanted you to know that, but at the same, I was excited because here I was going to have this chance to really be in the group, and in the math and science environment I always craved. But then I was not welcomed, so it was different.

Zierler:

Nowadays, we would call these things like microaggressions, right? And I’m curious if you were ever made to feel, even in a very subtle way, that you didn’t belong at a place like that, or that was not really your experience on the whole?

Jackson:

Oh, no, it was my experience on the whole in a couple of different ways. One, when I was a freshman, I took a course in materials science, and this other African-American woman and I were in the class together. She decided to take it. I took it. And the professor would call us Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Secondly, because I had As in the class—in fact, I had the highest grade in class, he decided he would try to advise me to maybe study it—this was in materials science. He thought, well, it was easier than physics. So he advised me that colored girls should learn a trade, and therefore this major would be good for me. And there were things like that, and then I—

Zierler:

How did you respond to something like that? Did you feel empowered to tell him how offensive something like that was, or did you just take it in your stride?

Jackson:

No, I didn’t say anything at that point. It did hurt my feelings, and I made up my mind that however interested I might’ve been in materials, I would not be majoring in that since he was a senior professor in that department. I was more interested in the basic physics anyway. In addition, I had so many things that happened.

I had lived in a res hall for women. It was the only one for women. It still is, by the way, because it was set up that way in the will of Ellen Dexter McCormick, who left the money to build this res hall. It was called McCormick Hall. And when I went into McCormick Hall, I didn’t have a roommate. I lived in a single, and so I never had a roommate at MIT because I lived in a single the whole time I was an undergrad, the same single, by the way.

And then I was a physics tutor in the women’s dorm, and I had my own little efficiency apartment within the women’s dorm. When I was in the dorm, I experienced challenging things—but that was true at MIT generally. For instance, if I went to the dining hall, and I sat at an empty table, nobody else would sit at the table. If I joined a table where other people were eating, they would suddenly finish, and get up and leave.

They never invited me, even the women in my class, into their study groups. One day I was working on a physics problem set, and the restroom was across the hall from my room. I had been working away on the problems, and so I got up to go to the restroom. And when I went out, I was surprised to see the women from my class, who lived on the floor, out there working on the problems together. So I went in and did what I did, and washed my hands, and came back. And then I gathered up my material work papers, and I said, “May I join you?” And so one of them said, “Go away.” And I said, “Well, look, I’ve done half the problems, and I think I know how to do the other half.” So another one said, “Well, didn’t you hear what she said? She said, ‘Go away.’” So I did.

I went back to my room, and I cried a little bit, and then I decided, well, I do have to finish these physics problems, so I did that. And then when I went to classes, in fact, I would always try to sit in the middle seat of the second row. I’m not the world’s tallest person, but that would put me on the eye level with the professor. But nobody would sit in the seats around me, even though these were actually the best seats from a visibility perspective. Other students formed study groups, but they never invited me in. So there were things like that.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, have you ever heard of Pee Wee Reese?

Jackson:

Yes.

Zierler:

So I grew up—my father’s from Brooklyn, and I grew up—maybe it’s a myth, a legend in baseball. But I grew up with the story that when Jackie Robinson took the field for the first time, and the crowds were cheering, and even his own teammates had trouble accepting him, the legend was that Pee Wee Reese took his glove off, and went to shake his hand as a matter of solidarity in showing that he would accept him. And Pee Wee Reese was respected among his peers. Did you have a Pee Wee Reese at MIT?

Jackson:

Sort of. There was a woman who was a grad student interestingly enough in materials science, and she was the TA in the course I took. And her name was Margaret MacVicar, and she would spend time talking with me. She had been a physics major, but then got her doctorate in materials science. In fact, she tried to influence me to get my PhD in materials science, but I ultimately decided against that. And so, yes, she befriended me.

I got to know a couple of professors, one of whom was Jerry Friedman. He was a physics professor, and he and I got to know each other pretty well. We didn’t socialize because he was the big professor. So, yes, they had an influence on me, and Jerry Friedman would encourage me, as well as Margaret MacVicar.

Zierler:

Did you try self-consciously or not, maybe even because it came naturally to you, to use these social disadvantages to your academic advantage, kind of like a “well, I’ll show them what I’m capable of”? Did you try to do that?

Jackson:

Well, I probably did but not consciously so. Believe it or not, my focus was more on, I just want to do well. I felt that my parents had high expectations for me. I wanted to show my mother that I would be OK. I wanted to live up to my father’s expectations of me. And I was raised and I always believed there should never be a place that others can go that I cannot go, and that there were no things that others can do that I cannot do.

Now, I can’t tell you it didn’t affect my confidence every now and then to keep running into these sorts of things. But even though I was isolated, and I didn’t have a ton of friends from my class, the irony is that I did well. I did very well, and better and better as I went along, actually. The more advanced the subjects got, the better I did. [laugh]

And MIT did not have a Phi Beta Kappa—at least at that point. But they had a Dean’s List, and you had to have a certain GPA to be on the list. And so I was always on the Dean’s List.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, what you’re saying, it’s remarkable. It reminds me of not your—I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Brian Nord at Fermilab. He’s one of the Particles for Justice founders, and he was quoted—he’s a young guy, probably in his 30s—and he was quoted in The Times earlier this week, or maybe it was last week, saying, “You know, as a teenager, I just wanted to study physics. I just wanted to understand how the universe works, and not—you know, like, why do I have to deal with all of this stuff?”

Jackson:

Right.

Zierler:

I’m curious, you know, at the time, if you ever found it silly that here you are trying to understand physics and how the universe works, and particles and things like that, and why are we even dealing with something as pedestrian or lowly as, you know, people caring about the color of one’s skin? Did you ever think about the disconnect between the loftiness of the discipline, and how lowly some of the people could act?

Jackson:

I did, I did, sure, quite a bit. That was always a big disappointment then, and hurtful. But one of the things I got from my parents is not to wallow in self-pity, try to see where the pathway is, and to pursue it. And you go through—and I believe this very strongly—you pass through your window in time, and if the window opens or the door opens, you step through it.

Now, that’s not to say you don’t fight for things, both in the personal and professional sense, but also to do something for somebody else. It’s not like I was oblivious to what was going on, because I was always very aware. But I also knew that, one, I went to MIT to become a scientist in the end. And, two, that if I was going to do something for other people, I had to be in a position to do something for other people.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you don’t come to a point where you have to take your own stand and to carry out your own fight for justice, and I did that. I did that especially as a graduate student. But I was by myself as an undergrad, and the women in my class didn’t particularly treat me well, and certainly not the men. So who were going to be my allies?

I actually joined an African-American sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, which was a New England-wide chapter, and that’s because there were so few of us at any of the schools around. We had members who came from as far away as Providence, Rhode Island down at Pembroke at the time, now Brown, Yale, Radcliffe, which now has been absorbed as part of Harvard, Northeastern Boston University, and UMass Amherst. So people came from a long way, and we came together. I was the president of the chapter for two years, and that’s when I began to think that maybe I had some leadership interests.

We did a lot of work in terms of trying to influence things and improve things in the African-American and the Black community in Boston. We also had tutoring programs, and I personally tutored at the YMCA in Roxbury, Mass., and worked as a volunteer at Boston City Hospital, which is now part of the Boston Medical Center. I worked in a pediatric ward, and they had kids of all races—black ones, white ones. That experience taught me a little bit about human suffering at a very young age, and that everybody carries some burden.

On the one hand, you could argue that kept my humanity intact. On the other, I was dealing with more systemic things, racial things, at MIT at the time. But yet I was there doing very well academically, and pursuing a certain path. So I didn’t just live a dichotomous life, I lived a trichotomous life. [laugh] I’ve always felt that I wanted to do well in science, but that I could also use it as a springboard to do other things.

Zierler:

Now right in the middle of your undergraduate education, both the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement are really starting to pick up steam. I’m curious if you were either personally a part of either of those movements, if they were a big deal on campus during those years, and to the extent you thought about them, how did you see your own experiences within both of those large-scale expressions?

Jackson:

The anti-war movement was probably a bigger deal at MIT than the civil rights movement, and so there were huge demonstrations. There was a big sit-in. Some people even got arrested, and one young man went to jail. Ironically, there was less linkage to the civil rights movement. But I was more involved in that through organizations I belonged to outside of MIT, such as the sorority.

And then the year I graduated, was the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I had applied and been admitted to Harvard, the University of Chicago, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, as well as to MIT. At MIT, I was admitted in both physics and materials science. Margaret MacVicar influenced me on the materials science, and I had done a joint bachelor’s thesis in physics and materials science.

Zierler:

Can you talk a little bit about that, what your thesis was on specifically?

Jackson:

My thesis was on the tunneling density of states in superconducting niobium-titanium alloys. And so the materials science piece was that I actually made up the samples and did this depositing of strips to create a tunneling junction, oxidizing the niobium and then putting down these strips, and attaching leads and all of that. The measurements had to do with the tunneling in the superconducting material, and then I worked up a little model. I was interested in the theory behind superconductivity.

At that time, the dominant theory was the BCS theory, Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory, of superconductivity. By that time, I knew I wanted to do things more on the theoretical side. Now Bardeen was controversial because he was known to have certain attitudes about race. He was at the University of Illinois, and so even though that was a place that a lot of people thought would be a good place to go to grad school, I did not apply.

However, there was a physicist by the name of Leo Falicov who did a lot of work in many-body theory, which was the root of this BCS theory, and he was at the University of Chicago. So that’s why I applied to the University of Chicago. Leon Cooper was at Brown University. That’s why I applied to Brown University.

Robert Schrieffer was at Penn. That’s why I applied to Penn. And then I applied to Harvard because it was Harvard, and MIT because it was MIT. And so I got into these places, and decided to stay at MIT.

Zierler:

So it sounds like by the end of your undergraduate experience, your identity in theory as a physicist was pretty well established at that point. You wanted to pursue theoretical physics.

Jackson:

Right, I did. I partly stayed at MIT because of the assassination of Dr. King. Because I had been at MIT as an undergrad, I had gone through a lot of things, and even over the course of being there, I had been through a lot of things in Boston.

I was chased. I was shot at. I was spit on. So all those things happened outside the context of MIT but in Boston. And then at MIT, there was the isolation, some hostility, and that kind of thing.

Zierler:

It sounds like a great reason to leave MIT.

Jackson:

Well, that’s why I did apply to these other places, and I was thinking seriously about Penn. I had had a good visit. They invited me to come, and they said I could start early doing some research the summer before I began. Same thing with Brown, and so forth.

But when Dr. King was killed, I thought about the fact that I had been at MIT and been pretty quiet, and I thought I could make a change at MIT. And so a group of us African-American students formed the Black Students Union, and I was one of the first co-chairs of the Black Students Union. We presented our demands—well, we called them proposals—to the administration to change things. And that happened in the spring of my senior year.

Zierler:

What were you looking to change with these proposals?

Jackson:

To have MIT recruit more minority students, particularly African Americans, to give people better financial aid, to create a bridge-type program, to try to hire more African-American professors and administration. There was a list of 10 things.

MIT formed a task force on educational opportunity, and it was headed by Dr. Paul Gray, who was then an associate provost at MIT. He had been on a sabbatical, and when he came back, they put him in charge of this task force. I was asked to join the task force, and so that’s how I got to know him, and Paul and I became really, really good friends over the years.

Zierler:

Paul was an ally?

Jackson:

Yes, he was, but more like we were compatriots trying to change things at MIT. And he was in EE, I was in physics, so we were really in linked fields but not the same field. And he was associate provost, I was a grad student. So it was more like he became a mentor to me.

Zierler:

Can you explain a little bit more about the fact that Dr. King was assassinated, and why that was—that made you feel it was important to stay at MIT? What’s the linkage there?

Jackson:

Well, Dr. King was assassinated on the day I was returning from my visit to Penn. And I was seriously going to go to Penn. But then when he was assassinated, MIT had this kind of event commemorating his life, which I felt was a little disingenuous because nobody had ever cared about these issues, as far as I could see. So I had my little moment to make a speech about it, and about what needed to change. And then I was admitted, and they gave me some money and all of that. But it wasn’t about the money, because everybody gave you money to go to grad school.

So I thought that I could make a difference, and so I decided to stay. And even though there was a strong materials science and engineering department, MIT earlier had been pretty strong in solid state physics, which we now call condensed matter physics, but it wasn’t so strong—I mean, it wasn’t as prominent, what was more prominent was nuclear physics and high-energy physics and they link. When I decided to stay, I wanted to do theory, but there was a professor that wanted me to work in this experimental group. But in the end, I decided, I wanted to do theory, and so that’s what I did. So I ended up doing particle physics, elementary particle theory.

Zierler:

It’s a very exciting time to be involved in elementary particle theory.

Jackson:

Yes, it was. It was a good period.

Zierler:

Who were some of the professors that you became close with as a graduate student?

Jackson:

As a grad student, Jerry Friedman and I still interacted quite a bit, Roman Jackiw who was a theory professor, theoretical physicist in the theory department, and later a younger professor, who’s now a senior professor. [laugh] His name was Bob Jaffe. I did my graduate thesis with Jim Young, and I initially was enamored because he was an African-American professor. But in fact he didn’t help me very much. Of course I formulated my thesis topic and how I would go about it. But he didn’t spend a lot of time with me, so I worked through that.

Zierler:

What were some of Jim Young’s research at that time? What was he working on?

Jackson:

On some different problems which I can’t articulate in particle and nuclear physics, because we really didn’t talk a lot, so he was kind of an absentee thesis advisor. I ended up spending more time talking with Roman Jackiw. Even before I did my thesis work, I had done a problem on three-body systems with Professor Jackiw. And that turned out to be important because as I was finishing my PhD, Professor Young really wasn’t doing anything for me.

Jackiw called me in, and said, “Well, what are you doing next?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know.” And so he says, “Well, it’s getting kind of late.” And I said, “Yeah.” And so he says, “Well, I’ll get back to you.” Then a day or so later, he called me and said, “Well, look, there’s a position that’s opened at Fermilab, and I think you need to look at it and take it,” which I did. So he ended up having more of an effect on launching my career than my thesis advisor did.

Zierler:

Did you ever wonder—not that you could get in his head—but why would your own thesis advisor—particularly someone who’s African-American—why would he keep you at arm’s length? Did you ever wonder what that was about?

Jackson:

You know, you ask me this kind of question about everything. I tried—I was upset and offended. But at a certain point, I couldn’t get into his head, and I’m not a psychologist, and I needed to get my thesis done, and I needed to get a job, and I needed to start my career.

Zierler:

Forward progress.

Jackson:

And that’s what I did, right. I went to Fermilab, and while I was at Fermilab, I met another female physicist, Mary K. Gaillard, theorist, and she was visiting from CERN. She spent a year at Fermilab, and she and I ended up working on a little problem together in neutrinos. And she suggested that I should come to CERN. She was actually at the CNRS, and that’s what supported her, but she was spending her time at Fermilab.

So she says, “Well, CERN doesn’t always…doesn’t really give Americans money, so. But I’m going to make sure they at least offer you a position, and even if it’s unpaid.” And so I did get this offer from CERN, and I ended up being able to get a grant from the Ford Foundation, who had supported me as a grad student. And then once I had the money from the Ford Foundation, CERN actually did supplement it to bring it up to the level that people had, because living in Switzerland, even back then, was not cheap. And so I had this money, and off I went to CERN.

Zierler:

How long were you at Fermilab before going to CERN?

Jackson:

One year, and so I went—

Zierler:

Had you been in a National Laboratory before, before stepping foot at Fermilab?

Jackson:

I’m trying to remember.

Zierler:

Like for a summer at Brookhaven, or something like that?

Jackson:

I ultimately spent some time at SLAC, but I’m not sure that was before I went to CERN, and from before I went to Fermilab. So I think I had not really been—I knew about the national labs, but I’d never went. But I did spend a summer—a couple of summers —doing what physicists refer to as summer schools. I went to a theoretical physics summer school at University of Colorado, Boulder. And that actually had an influence on my going to Bell Labs later on.

Then I went to an international school of sub-nuclear physics. It was called Ettore Majorana. It was in Erice, and so I went to Erice for almost a month as well the summer before I graduated. And I enjoyed those, you know. That was in Sicily. I did things like that, but I had never specifically been to one of the national labs.

Zierler:

Was Fermilab—?

Jackson:

Because Fermilab was just opening. It had not been open very long.

Zierler:

Was it an exciting place to be during that year?

Jackson:

It was, it was, but I ran into some of the kinds of things that I had run into at MIT where, other than Mary K., a number of physicists otherwise were men, and they were not especially welcoming. Fermilab was set up in a way where the theory group had a cluster. You know, it was these houses that had been there on the prairie, I’ll call it. And there was a cluster, and that was where the theory group was.

They were finishing this big tower that looked like one of the dipole magnets, and that’s where the seminars were—we had these colloquium seminars a couple times a week. I was in a car pool because I lived in Chicago because I couldn’t find a place to live close to the lab. I tried but it didn’t work. So I actually commuted in a car pool from Chicago, which was 35 miles, out to Fermilab every day. And so many days, I didn’t have a car.

The other folks would get together and drive out to the main administration building, I’ll call it, to the dipole magnet, which is what I called it at the time. And so I’d be working away, and I’d look up, and they’d all be gone. Then I would leave my door open to see if they would ask me, and they still left.

So there was a woman, a Black woman, who was the administrative assistant, and she would tell me to take her car. So you would say, well, why would I need a car? It’s because it’s a big site. This building was about four miles away—a few miles away. So it wasn’t like one could just run over there at the last minute.

We just got into a rhythm where I used her car, and she would wait for me, even if the colloquium ran late, for me to come back. And then the car pool would wait, and then we’d go back to Chicago. But the car pool started out with two white males, one African-American male, and me. And the white males kept quizzing me on—one of them in particular—physics to see if I was smart enough to be at Fermilab. So in the end, that car pool fell apart. So the African-American male and I carpooled together after that.

Zierler:

What happened? He was offended at how you—how much you knew?

Jackson:

We were riding along the highway one day, and it was a day when the African-American male was driving, and I was in the front, and the two white males were in the back, and a Black family passed in a car. It’s a nice car. And they made some racially disparaging remarks, and I heard them, and so I decided I wouldn’t carpool.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, I wonder if at a point like this, you’re thinking to yourself, you know, it didn’t change at graduate school so much, now it’s not changing at Fermilab, maybe it’s never going to change? Did you have those kinds of thoughts?

Jackson:

Well, I went to CERN, and I had a really good time there, and I thought I might stay in Europe. But then I decided, well, I was born in the US, my family was here, I’d come back. And, yes, I think there was a background piece that there would always be an extra struggle or effort because I was an African-American female. But I wasn’t going to be defined by that. So often, people spend more time talking with me about being the African-American female than about what I’ve done, the different arenas that I’ve been in.

Zierler:

So let’s talk more physics. What were the major research questions that you were involved in at Fermilab?

Jackson:

Well, at Fermilab, I was doing a continuation of work on my thesis. I had done my thesis on what was then called strong interaction physics, and looking at one-particle inclusive reactions, and trying to think of ways how one could solve it. And it turns out that you could make certain predictions, because of things having to do with continuity ideas and so on. You could turn a one-particle inclusive reaction theoretically into a three-body problem, and I had done this three-body type problem using Bethe-Salpeter equations with Roman Jackiw years before.

When I did my thesis, it was a numerical solution using the computers we had at the time. But then I realized certain symmetries were in the inherent formulation, so I ended up being able to get an exact solution to the problem. And that’s what I ended up working a lot on, and publishing a couple of papers on. You can look them up. They’re in Annals of Physics.

Zierler:

Sure.

Jackson:

And then I did this problem with Mary K., and…

Zierler:

Mary was your chief collaborator at Fermilab?

Jackson:

Yes, but I mainly worked by myself, but she and I did this one problem together. And then when I went to Fermilab, I mean, went to CERN there was another kind of strong interaction type model that came up called reggeons field theory. So I started work on reggeons and nonlinear field theories. And I continued a little bit of the work I did with Mary K., but I was really using it as a period to learn more about topology.

I got interested in the topological properties of solutions to nonlinear field theories, so I went back to Fermilab, and kind of noodled around with that, and I’m trying to remember. I may have done one paper involving reggeons. But then I was coming up on the end of my postdoc, and so I’m thinking about I wanted to do, and what I could do.

Zierler:

Your postdoc at Fermilab, you mean?

Jackson:

Right, yes, and so the real question was at that point, it was pretty hard as well to get jobs in particle physics, plus a lot of people were doing two and three postdocs. So I had to think about is that something [laugh] I wanted to do?

Zierler:

So CERN was an interlude during the Fermilab year?

Jackson:

Yes, it was between two years. I spent a year at CERN between two years at Fermilab.

Zierler:

And on the whole, CERN was a good experience?

Jackson:

A very good experience.

Zierler:

How was the science different there, sort of culturally, the work environment?

Jackson:

Well, I think people were more collaborative, more interactive in an easy way. You know, we had long lunches spending time talking about physics, and talking about other things. I got to know this German couple, both of whom were physicists, quite well. And we would do little picnics in the Jura Mountains around Geneva on the weekends. And, he had a telescope, his name was Fritka. We would look at the stars and talk about astronomy and lightning and all of those things.

They actually invited me to go trekking with them in Kathmandu, but I declined. I wish I had gone. All in all, it was great, and I got to know Mary K. even better, and she’s still a good friend. You know, she’s out at Berkeley. In fact, I went out there.

Zierler:

I talked to Mary K. a few months ago.

Jackson:

Did you?

Zierler:

Yeah.

Jackson:

Well, she’s a great woman, and I went out for her 80th birthday.

Zierler:

Oh, wow.

Jackson:

And I spoke, so, yes, I think a lot of Mary K.

Zierler:

So at CERN in many ways, were you more accepted just as a talented physicist, and your identity was less of an issue?

Jackson:

I would say so. You know, you have some people who have their hang-ups. But it wasn’t as in your face as it was at the other places I had been, and there were—

Zierler:

This must’ve been a breath of fresh air for you.

Jackson:

Oh, it was good. I mean one could focus on the physics—but also explore. You know, I had been to Europe but I had not lived in Europe. So I would go to Paris a lot, and I love art, and so I would go to the museums and—

Zierler:

And you’re single in these years? You’re not married.

Jackson:

Oh, yes, right, no, I wasn’t. [laugh] And so I’d go to the cafés, have a un café, you know—

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

—some coffee. When I lived in Geneva on Sundays I would go to this place and have fondue and read the International Herald Tribune and Le Monde, so I was living the life. And then I’d get together with Barbara and Fritka, and we’d have dinner and do our thing, or get together with Mary K., or some of the others. And people would invite me to little physicists parties, so it was interesting.

Zierler:

So you really did at some point fancy the notion of maybe making a life for yourself in Europe?

Jackson:

I did, I did. But then I came back, because, remember, I did start out with this joint thesis in materials science and physics way back when I was a bachelors student. And so I was interested in condensed matter, and I would’ve done that had that been more of a focus at MIT at the time I was a grad student. So I really did particle physics because I couldn’t do condensed matter physics there at the time because there weren’t so many people there doing that. But I did the particle physics because it was very mathematical, which I enjoyed, and I got very interested in symmetry groups and so forth. Then someone suggested that maybe I should look at Bell Labs, and they kind of recommended me.

And it turns out when I had gone to this theoretical physics summer school in Boulder at the University of Colorado, I met a theoretical physicist there. His name was John Clark, and he was at Bell Labs. And I was introduced to him by another physicist whose name was Harry Morrison, whom I had met. And John Clark and I used to spend a fair amount of time talking about physics, and so forth, and he taught me some things about what he was doing. And so I had the temerity to contact him, and he recommended me that the theory people talk to me. I was invited by Maurice Rice, who was the head of the theory group at Bell Labs at the time—theory department, they called it—to come to a March meeting of the APS in Atlanta to chat.

I flew to Atlanta to chat with Maurice Rice and I was talking to him about these ideas I had, and so on. So he invited me to come to Bell Labs to give a seminar, and we agreed I would be talking about neutrinos, per se, because I had done this little problem. But I was really interested in how topology could apply in condensed matter systems. But before I went, he called me back to say that it wasn’t going to be a seminar. It was going to be a colloquium.

Zierler:

Oh. [laugh]

Jackson:

He wanted me to start out with what I had done in particle physics but then take some time to talk about some of my other ideas, which I then continued as I went person to person to person—how you go talk to this one, this one, this one. I had to interview with Phil Anderson and a lot of famous people. And so they ended up offering me what was called a limited member of the technical staff. I call it a glorified postdoc—

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

—because I was switching fields, and it was in the theory department. I started working with Maurice Rice and Patrick Lee, who’s a professor at MIT now, and might even be emeritus. We did some interesting work—and I was the lead author on charge density waves and layered transition metal dichalcogenides. And it turns out that under certain circumstances, how these charge density waves kind of bunched, actually it was like a quasar soliton type structure called discommensurations. And those things dominated the connectivity properties and the thermodynamics with the system, so this was right up the alley of what I always had wanted to do.

So that’s how I started working in general on the electronic and optical properties of layered materials. I had done this work and it was published in, this nice little piece. It was interesting because I’ve worked with them awhile. There was a book—this was before all the stuff became online and in programs like Mathematica and other things. There was this book called the Tables of Integral, Series, and Products by Ryzhik and Gradshteyn, these Russian authors. So every integral, every series that you could think of was in this book.

And so when you were doing some theoretical physics calculation [laugh] that was the tome you would turn to for certain kinds of hairy integrals and things. We were trying to use Ryzhik and Gradshteyn in our calculations. But then I discovered that one of these things didn’t work out right in a limit—when you went to certain limits, it didn’t make sense based on physics. And so I figured out that this integral in Ryzhik and Gradshteyn was wrong.

Then Patrick and I spent time, and we figured out what the right answer was, and we wrote to the publisher. And in those days, if you found a mistake, because they’ve had so few, they would give you an acknowledgment. And there was an acknowledgment section. So I haven’t looked for years but there was an acknowledgment of S. A. Jackson, P.A. Lee, because we found this mistake, and corrected it for them. So that was cute.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, I’m curious if you felt like you were working for a corporation? In other words, was it a purely basic science research environment? Was there a sense that you were working towards some bottom-line profit, or was it really all about just pure science and research and collaboration?

Jackson:

It was that. It was the science, to do good science, the work, the collaboration, to publish, to give talks at the American Physical Society, to publish in the major physics journals. We would have tea every afternoon, and talk about preprints and , what was in some of the journals. We had physics colloquia and physics seminars, and depending on how broad-based or narrow they were lots of outside visitors. There were postdocs who came to work in the groups. So, no, we were not connected to products. That was a different part of Bell Labs.

Zierler:

It sounds like really an academic kind of environment more.

Jackson:

It was much more like that, and so it was good. It was a good environment. You know, I ran into a few wrinkles there as usual, but nothing like what I had faced earlier.

Zierler:

And do you ascribe that more to sort of changing social values, or you’re just sort of rising in the field, and it’s easier for people to take you more seriously?

Jackson:

I think it was some of both. I had one kind of experience that wasn’t great with someone I worked for. But then when the guy at the top of the organization changed, I was offered the chance to transfer to another group, another department, which I did, and things were OK. But then I came to the point that I’d felt I didn’t want to just keep doing what I was doing.

By that time, I was married and had a son, and I wanted a different kind of structure to my life. And so when I let it be known that I was thinking about leaving, then Rutgers called me up, and I went and gave a colloquium, and they offered me a tenured full professorship. I accepted it but then Bell Labs said, “Well, why don’t you keep working for us as well?” And so I was working part-time.

But I felt I didn’t want to be committed to always being there on a certain day, so we converted it to a consultantship but de facto. They paid me the same way. And I did that. I worked for Bell Labs part-time but worked as a full professor at Rutgers until I went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Zierler:

What year was that when you took that position at Rutgers?

Jackson:

1991.

Zierler:

And looking back at your career at Bell Labs, what were some of the most intellectually and scholarly significant programs that you worked on? And I’m curious if any had a practical application that would’ve made Bell Labs very happy in terms of the products that they were working on?

Jackson:

Well, I think a number of us were working on electronic and optical properties of different systems. You know, those were the days with people really using molecular-beam epitaxy—different ways to deposit atomic layers and look at strain layer structures and so on. What I was the most known for was some work on electrons on the surface of liquid helium films, and looking at the dielectric effects, and how it affected how these electrons on the surface interacted with these surface waves. They were called ripplons.

And it turns out that it was kind of an analogy to electron-phonon interactions in semiconductors. I ended up using path integral techniques to study the physics of these electrons, and lo and behold, I discovered things that were controlled by the thickness of the film because that determined the strength of the coupling. And again, a topological type object appeared that caused the effective mass of the electrons to change by five orders of magnitude, and so it totally would just kind of plonk down. And it was a polaron-type effect. You know, polarons have been described as a particle that digs its own grave, that it affects the medium its traveling in, then that medium acts back on it and affects its connectivity, mainly through its effective mass and some other things.

But people had seen this phenomenon in ionic crystals with very low coupling where the mass might change by a couple of percent, but nobody had seen it change by five orders of magnitude. And then it was later borne out by experiment, and it was after that I was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society. But I worked as well on other two-dimensional systems, looking at strained-layer semiconductor super lattices, looking at zone folding that would allow previously forbidden optical transitions to become allowed.

You could tailor the optical response and the optoelectronic response of these materials, primarily germanium silicon, as well as looking at magnetic polarons, and their effect on optoelectronic material. So I have this whole body of work on these things, and people talk about my having some involvement in creating call waiting and so on. And I think somebody put together something thinking she worked for the telephone company.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

She worked on these semiconductors. And you could argue that this kind of thing undergirded different kinds of device systems. But my job was never to invent a given device. But there is a body of work that I’m known for in these areas.

Zierler:

These sound like years of great intellectual energy, which is all the more remarkable given the fact that you’re a young mom on top of everything else.

Jackson:

Oh, it was a good period except I had one—like I said—one situation with one boss. But then I came around that, so it ended up being a good experience.

Zierler:

What were the promotions like at Bell Labs, starting from the glorified postdoc position to the time when you became a consultant?

Jackson:

Well along the way, after I’d done this early work with Maurice Rice and Patrick Lee, I also was invited to come and interview at IBM. And so I did, and I talked [laugh] about the work I had done at Bell Labs. And IBM offered me, on the spot, a position at the T. J. Watson Research Center, a member of the research staff. Now, you could argue that the promotion part is where it wasn’t such a great thing, but it wasn’t just for me—it was for other minorities as well at Bell Labs—although I ultimately became a distinguished member of the technical staff before I ended up going off to Rutgers.

Zierler:

Was IBM known to poach some of the—to try to poach some of the best people at Bell Labs? Was that something that they were known to do?

Jackson:

I think they really more competed for people early on in their careers, and then they would develop them. And in the end, I would say that at some level, IBM probably became known as one who gave perhaps a little more opportunity to African Americans to move up the ranks.

Zierler:

Now when Rutgers called, was this sort of out of the blue? Had you put out feelers about perhaps joining—rejoining an academic kind of environment?

Jackson:

Well, it was both. I mean, there was a fairly strong coupling between Rutgers and Bell Labs. There was a joint kind of colloquium series, and people—a kind of a notification of colloquia at different places: Rutgers, Princeton, even Columbia, Bell Labs, etc. People would go to these places for colloquia and seminars, and there were people from Rutgers who collaborated with people at Bell Labs, and so on. It was more when I was talking to people. I never applied as such, so they did call me up and invite me to come give a talk.

Zierler:

Did you feel pretty well-connected to the academic physics world during your years at Bell Labs? In other words, were you presenting at conferences? Were you writing in academic journals?

Jackson:

Oh, yes, all the time, all the time—giving talks at conferences, sometimes at universities, publishing papers in journals. So there was no difference. If anything, it was probably more like being at an institute for advanced study with a broader mandate, but we were in a company. Like, in a way, being in that company, you had a lot of resources at your disposal.

Zierler:

Was it a tough decision in terms of, you know, how attractive the offer was at Rutgers to leave a place that was, known to be where some of the best basic science research was happening anywhere in the world?

Jackson:

No, because I’ve always made decisions based on where I am in my life overall. And since I was going to have this continuing position at Bell Labs, it really didn’t seem like it was such a big change.

Zierler:

Best of both worlds kind of situation?

Jackson:

Right.

Zierler:

So in terms of the attraction to Rutgers, what was it about, you know, in terms of where you were in your life that taking an academic appointment, certainly a full professor appointment that was appealing to you?

Jackson:

Well, there were a couple of things. One, Rutgers at that time was really building up its condensed matter theory group in the physics department, and it had some people who were pretty well-known. Secondly, it had a pretty good link to Bell Labs. Third, I had to teach but I had more flexibility with my schedule, and it was closer to where I was living at the time—where we were living at that time. And so, I mean, there was a kind of a veneer. You asked me about being in industry, and what it felt like.

On the one hand, it was clearly—in terms of our intellectual focus, it was totally like being in academia or, like I said, some dedicated research type lab, which is what it was. But we did exist under a corporate umbrella so the hours were hours you were expected to be around. But if you’re a professor, you kind of define things a little bit more on your own terms. But also I wanted to have students. I always think of students as being one’s intellectual children, is what I call them, or offspring—intellectual offspring. That, coupled with the fact that I had a young son gave me kind of an ideal setup.

Zierler:

Where did you meet your husband?

Jackson:

In a physics seminar at Bell Labs. It was the first year we were both there, and there was a seminar on electron concentration in semiconductors, and he came in late, so I noted him.

Zierler:

[laugh] You remembered that?

Jackson:

Oh, yes.

Zierler:

[laugh] Where had your husband come from before Bell Labs?

Jackson:

He had gotten his PhD at NYU, and he and I graduated from college the same year. But he had his graduate education interrupted because this was during the Vietnam War, and he was drafted. So he actually was in the army for two years, and he was in combat for a year. He went and did his service, and he came straight from the jungles of Vietnam, and within a week was back in graduate school. And he had to kind of start again, so he ended up getting his PhD a few years after I did. But he’s a Vietnam combat veteran with a Bronze Star. And then he went back—

Zierler:

Another Bronze Star in your life?

Jackson:

Right. Then he went back and finished his doctorate.

Zierler:

Did he stay at Bell Labs while you were transitioning to Rutgers?

Jackson:

He stayed at Bell Labs while I was at Rutgers, and while I was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But then when I came up here to Rensselaer, then after a few months, he transitioned up.

Zierler:

Did the offer at Rutgers include the ability for you to build a lab of your own?

Jackson:

Well, build a research group of my own. I didn’t—right. I wasn’t at Rutgers for very long before I ended up going to the NRC. But I did have a couple of grad students and a postdoc while I was there. And they’ve done pretty well. So I had two grad students and a postdoc.

Zierler:

And you enjoyed—just like you thought you would—you enjoyed having graduate students?

Jackson:

Oh, yes, I did, I did. But I enjoyed teaching as well.

Zierler:

Did you take any lessons from your own experiences as a graduate student, both positive and negative, that influenced your style as a mentor, and the kinds of advice you would give your graduate students?

Jackson:

[laugh] Well, I felt it was important to give my students the time that they needed, and to try to find that right balance between having them define and forge an intellectual path, but also giving them guidance with that path, and also generally being kind to my students.

Zierler:

Did you take on new research endeavors during your time at Rutgers?

Jackson:

No, I continued on some of the kinds of problems I had them working on, some of the kinds of problems I had been on, because there were three adjustments I had to make. One was how I would split my time between Rutgers and Bell Labs, the second was teaching for the first time, and the third was raising a son.

Zierler:

What were your favorite classes to teach undergraduates during your time at Rutgers?

Jackson:

I just taught introductory physics, and it was a large lecture course, and it would alternate with teaching a more advanced graduate course in band structure.

Zierler:

In those introductory courses, when you had the sense that maybe this was the only time that students would really be exposed to physics, what were some of the most important things that you wanted to convey about physics to people who might never think about physics again?

Jackson:

Well, I think a couple of things. One, for them to learn a little bit more about how the natural world is. Two, see the importance of mathematics to understanding the natural world, because a lot of people are kind of disdainful of or afraid of math. And then the third is the idea of being able to learn to look at complexity and complex situations, and think about how you begin to figure out what’s going on, but also then to have a path through the forest, and what tools are there to help you do that. And that physics and math provide a disciplined way of going at problems, even ones that relate to broader, say, policy issues. And that’s what I’ve done a lot in my career.

Zierler:

In terms of your interactions with undergraduates, this of course is an ongoing issue with problems of underrepresentation in physics with both women and minority groups, I’m curious if you thought of yourself as a role model, and you saw that your role as an—had—there was an opportunity for people who came from underrepresented backgrounds that they could see in you a positive path for their own future in science, if you’ve thought about those things in your interactions with undergraduates?

Jackson:

Well, you know, for a while, for quite a while, I rejected the notion of being a role model, partly because I had never in my earliest days had direct role models. If anything, my parents were my role models, but they were role models that had to do with love of learning, discipline, doing the best you can, and prevailing even under adversity, that education was your best pathway to forward, and that you had to learn to pick your battles. And of course my father spent a lot of time because he would help us design go-karts and things like that, which we would race up and down—well, it was more down the alleys in our neighborhood because they were gravity-fit.

So one had to learn about things like that early on, and how you design the shape of these—we used to call them hot rods. So in that sense, he had a big influence. He also was a photographer, so he had me developing film, pictures with him. Needless to say, he had a big influence.

But in a subtle way, my mother had as much or an even bigger influence because she ensured that I had a balance, and I did as well in the language arts as I did in math and science. And my love of reading really relates to her influence. But both of them were models of really hard work, and keeping one’s own counsel. And that has served me well because while it can hurt to have people reject you and not want to spend time, if one can keep one’s own counsel, one can keep going. But my father taught me a lot of things about mechanical things and how things worked and so forth.

Zierler:

Did your parents live long enough to see all that you’ve achieved?

Jackson:

Both of my parents lived to see me sworn in as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And he died while I was at the NRC.

Zierler:

So the idea was when you say that you rejected the idea of being a role model, this is because—?

Jackson:

Oh, yes, because the point was that I did not have the classic role models that most people think about in the sense of somebody doing what one is aspiring to do, because I didn’t know any. And secondly, I’ve always been sensitive to the idea that no one person’s path is the same as another. And my concept of being a role model, unless one is one’s—almost one’s own generation, they are years displaced—one is years displaced from the given person. And so I felt how could my experience exactly replicate what people are doing? But then I changed. I felt that if my life could be inspirational to someone else, then that’s OK.

Zierler:

What do you think accounted for that change?

Jackson:

Maturity.

Zierler:

[laugh] When did that happen? Obviously you don’t wake up one day, and you say, “I’ve become mature about these things.” But roughly when that…when did that happen?

Jackson:

These things happened along the way as I met more and more young people aspiring to make some science.

Zierler:

Right. I mean, even if somebody—it’s obvious that nobody’s going to have the same exact career path—

Jackson:

Correct.

Zierler:

—just a matter of looking at you and saying, “You know, I look like you. I identify with you,” that has value in and of itself, even without you doing anything besides being excellent in your research and your teaching.

Jackson:

Apparently, yes.

Zierler:

So, again, I know we—there’s no grand plan with these things. But was your intention—you were happy at Rutgers? You were not thinking about leaving any time soon when you got that call from the President?

Jackson:

That’s right, no, I wasn’t.

Zierler:

How did that day go down? How did you—?

Jackson:

How did that day [laugh] go down?

Zierler:

Was it also entirely out of the blue?

Jackson:

It was actually, it was.

Zierler:

Who called?

Jackson:

The White House have what’s called the Office of Presidential Personnel. And they wanted my bigger résumé, CV, and I wanted to know what it was for, and they said, “Well, we can’t tell you.” And I said, “I can’t send it to you then.” They called me back a couple days later and told me it was for a presidential appointment, and what it was. Initially, it was to become a commissioner of the NRC. But then I went through the process, and I was invited to the White House for interviews. And once I went through that, they actually offered me the chairship of the NRC.

Zierler:

What year was that when they made this offer?

Jackson:

Well, it was originally in the fall of 1994. But that was the year of the Gingrich revolution, and so the Congress changed hands. The interesting thing is, when one is nominated for presidential appointment there’s a whole round of congressional visits, particularly Senate visits, that one has to make, as the Senate does the confirmations, beginning with one’s own senators.

So I worked to make appointments with Senator Frank Lautenberg—he was the senator—and Senator Bill Bradley. I visited Lautenberg I believe in Washington. But interestingly enough, Senator Bradley came to my office at Rutgers, and he actually came on that election day, but earlier in the day. People were shocked, you know, he’s very tall. And so here are all these physicists [laugh] and they’re shocked to see Bill Bradley.

So he came, and I took him down the hall to this conference room where we had our coffee, and people were coming in and out. But then after a while, it kind of settled down. And we’re sitting there, just chatting about different things, and then he left. And I always remember that.

When I had my confirmation hearing, of course both he and Frank Lautenberg introduced me, and that’s also important in how all these things went. So the answer is no, I did not seek out—I had never been involved, and never have I been involved in any campaign. And so this did come out of the blue.

Zierler:

Did you wonder—when you realized that it was for the NRC, did you wonder why you in terms of your research and what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was all about? Did you try to make those connections as to why they were interested in you?

Jackson:

No, because of the following. One, my original PhD was in particle physics, and particle physics is really an outgrowth of nuclear physics. So the academic background was there. Number two, over the years in New Jersey, I had gotten involved—even as I was doing theoretical physics, and being a scientist at Bell Labs, and a professor at Rutgers—I had gotten involved in issues at the intersection of science and public policy. And I was a member of what was called the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, which was created to make investments in the research universities in the state in areas that were deemed to be important to the New Jersey economy. And so the investments were made at—and this is before I was a professor there—at Rutgers, at NJIT on the public side, and at Princeton, and Stevens Institute of Technology on the private side.

I was on and co-chaired what they called the scientific fields committee, which made decisions about where the investments would go, and I was also on the budget committee [laugh] for the commission. I was appointed to that by Governor Tom Kean. And because we were giving away and handling state money, which was raised through bond issues, I actually had to go through a state senate confirmation process. I also was asked to join the board of the largest utility company in New Jersey, Public Service Enterprise Group. It had had PSEG, the big utility. And it turns out they owned or co-owned five nuclear reactors, and they operated three at one big site.

I was ultimately asked to be on what was called the nuclear oversight committee—that was a committee that had a liaison who was a board member, and I was that person. It had nuclear power folks and nuclear experts otherwise. I was on the committee for a couple of years, and then I was asked to chair the committee, and then the chair stepped down. I had been asked to also serve on advisory—a board for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. INPO was created in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident to improve nuclear performance—you know—performance at nuclear power plants, and became even more important after Chernobyl.

So at the time I was approached by the White House, I was chairing the nuclear oversight committee. I was on the board, and I’d been going back and forth to the nuclear plants, and I was on the advisory council for INPO. And so that plus my academic background—and the interesting thing was I took the place on the board of PSEG of a gentleman who had been a physicist as well, who was president of Stevens. His name was Ken Rogers, and he had gone off to be a commissioner of the NRC. And so I don’t think he necessarily recommended me for the NRC, but my name was kind of out there, I think. So that’s my read of it.

Zierler:

What was it like for those initial interviews at the White House? Who did you talk to?

Jackson:

Senior staff and the Vice President, and things like that. And, by that time, I had gone through lots and lots and lots and lots of interviews in my life, and because I wasn’t invested in necessarily having a presidential appointment I just did the interviews. I know it sounds like I’m casual about everything, and I’m not at all. It’s just that I am calm about everything.

Zierler:

Well, it sounds like even from your parents, like you said, you keep your own counsel, and you learned how to take things in stride.

Jackson:

Correct, because when I went to MIT, I went with a scholarship from what was then the Martin Marietta Corporation, which is now Lockheed Martin. They gave me a four-year scholarship that paid quite a bit toward my tuition, plus it gave money to the department I majored in. And this is an interesting story—they were kind of headquartered outside of Baltimore.

At that time, they gave out three scholarships to people from the Washington, D.C., area to students—graduating students. And they gave one to someone from the Maryland suburbs, one from the Virginia suburbs, and one from D.C. I ultimately got the one for the D.C. student. But to get it, aside from them examining my record and SAT scores and grades and what I’d studied, I had to go to Baltimore for an interview.

So I’m sitting at this long table, and it’s all these white men, and yours truly. They talked to me about math, about science, asked me a bunch of questions, but also about other things. I knew about other things as well, and about the space program, because, remember, they were involved with making rockets and things like that. And so it went—it seemed to be going pretty well.

And at the end, they said, “Well, 20 years from now, if you look back on your life, what do you want to be able to say?” And I said, “Well, 20 years from now, I’d like to be able to look back and say that I took the ability I have and the opportunities I’ve been given to do the best I can and make a difference in the world.” So they gave me the scholarship.

The interesting thing was that the students who were two white males from Virginia and from Maryland, all of us went to MIT. The guy who was from Virginia majored, I believe, in electrical engineering, the guy from Maryland in math, and I in physics. So it was an interesting time.

But that was a big enabler for me to be able to go to MIT because my parents wouldn’t have been able to afford it. I had also a scholarship from a masonic lodge, a black masonic lodge, that gave me essentially an amount of money that was about equal—in terms of direct financial aid—to the Martin Marietta scholarship. And my father worked two jobs—he worked in the post office by day and drove a taxi at night—and he devoted his taxi earnings to making up the difference. And I worked in a lab at MIT as well. And so all these things came together to allow me to go.

Zierler:

Did you think about not taking the NRC opportunity just as a matter of uprooting your family, and being on a very happy trajectory at Rutgers?

Jackson:

Well, my husband and I spent a lot of time talking [laugh] about it, as well as talking with my parents and my siblings, and colleagues and friends, and Paul Gray. And in the end—and I talked with Frank Press. I had gotten to know him. And he was—I think was he still president of the National Academies? He might’ve been, but it was around that time.

And he said, “Well, if you were going as a commissioner, I might say you should think about it. But if you have the opportunity to be the chairman, then you should probably think about it, you know, take it up.” And that coupled with the fact that it was a pretty high-level position to go from where I was, and to not take up a presidential appointment at that level—because being chairman of the NRC is interesting in two ways. One, it’s at the level of at least a deputy secretary in a cabinet department, but secondly because one heads one’s own independent regulatory agency, so one had more authority than would one would necessarily have even as a deputy.

Zierler:

Now in terms of Frank’s advice about the difference between being a commissioner and being a chairman, that’s a good opportunity to gain some insight on how the NRC is structured. If you could talk a little bit about why it’s such a big deal to be chairman versus one of the commissioners.

Jackson:

Well, I think it’s a big deal to be a commissioner as well. The NRC came out of the Atomic Energy Commission, when nuclear power was on its ascendancy. A decision was made to separate the weapons and the civilian uses of nuclear power, although both surviving entities or coming out of that would still both have responsibility for our national security because it’d be using nuclear materials. So the ERDA, the Energy Research and Development Administration, was formed. That ultimately became the Department of Energy. When ERDA was formed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NRC, was formed.

Now, the irony is that makes the NRC slightly older than DOE because the Department of Energy was formed after the NRC. It was decided to keep the commission form of structure at the NRC, and then have an administrator for ERDA, and then obviously a secretary when it became a cabinet department. And so the commission was set up initially where all commissioners had equal authority. There was a chairman, but the chairman presided over meetings, and did certain things. But essentially all the commissioners had equal authority.

And then a thing called Three Mile Island occurred, and it was not considered to be the NRC’s finest hour. And so there was an Energy Reorganization Act of 1979 that made the chairman the principal executive officer. The commission still retained the authority relative to adjudicatory decisions and voting on regulations.

Zierler:

Now when you say in 1979 that it was not the NRC’s finest hour, are you referring to that constant tension between the regulation and what industry wants, and perhaps in 1979 the NRC was not able to regulate industry the way that they should have or needed to?

Jackson:

No, no, it was more having—you know, it may have had some roots in some of that, but it was more that how the response to the Three Mile Island accident was handled by the NRC.

Zierler:

After the fact, you mean?

Jackson:

During the fact. [laugh] You had commissioners jumping all over each other, and issuing different statements, and confusion about who was in charge. So it turned out that the head staff person for—at the NRC being the executive director of operations—they called him the EDO—ended up kind of stepping to the fore, and I think visited the plant with Jimmy Carter.

There was a feeling that they had to vest more executive authority in the chairman while retaining certain functions to the commission, but making it clear as well that the chairman had a responsibility to lead the policy making, even though everybody had an equal vote there. And that in an emergency, that the power of—the full power of the commission goes to the chairman. But there couldn’t be confusion.

Zierler:

So if everyone has the same equal vote, what exact policy influence does the chairman wield?

Jackson:

Because the chairman directs the staff, the staff reports to the chairman.

Zierler:

So you were explaining how even though everyone gets the same vote, because the chairman directs the staff, that’s really where the influence is in terms of what the chairman—?

Jackson:

But also the chairman organizes the policy process, and leads the policy-making process, and represents the agency officially in different fora, etc. So, for instance, every fall, there’s a delegation of people in the atomic energy area to the general conference of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and it typically involves the secretary of energy, people from the State Department. But it always has the chairman of the NRC.

And then every day, there’s a meeting that the chairman has with the heads of the major offices, the executive director of operations, the general counsel, the CIO, the CFO, and so forth. And so it’s a subtle balance, but it gives the chairman a lot of authority. It’s not unlike in a way being a provost or president of a university with faculty. There are certain prerogatives the faculty has, but there are certain decisions and authorities that rest with the president and/or the provost, depending upon what they are.

Zierler:

I’m curious when you got to know Frank Press and, you know, how his advice about the chairmanship was so important to you?

Jackson:

I think I had been involved on some committees at the National Academies and I don’t remember precisely how I got to know Frank, but I did get to know him. And then someone also separately recommended that I talk to him about the NRC, and so I did.

Zierler:

I’m curious if over the years, either in your capacity as a physicist or someone interested in public policy, if you were following the NRC and some of the issues that it was dealing with, you know, from a disaster like Three Mile Island to Chernobyl?

Jackson:

Even before I went?

Zierler:

Yeah.

Jackson:

Not especially, I mean, I had a high visibility of what it was and what it did because it regulated the nuclear plants where I was chair of the nuclear oversight committee. And the company ran those plants, so one was very aware of the regulatory framework and that whole kind of thing. But I had not really been aware of those controversies in such a direct way until I became chairman.

And when I went there, some things blew up relative to the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant, issues that related to the things you’re talking about, and had been simmering apparently for a couple of years. And so [laugh] within the first six months of my being chair, it really blew up, and the NRC ended up on the cover of Time magazine where the title was Blowing the Whistle on Nuclear Safety. And that was an interesting experience. [laugh]

Zierler:

Well, Dr. Jackson, I’m cognizant of the time, and so I think I want to ask just two last questions to sort of set the stage in terms of what you saw as your mandate as you assumed the chairmanship of the NRC. And the first one is, civilian nuclear energy engenders all kinds of passionate responses from American citizens for and against, right, with regard to climate change and pollution and all kinds of things. So both in your capacity as just a citizen but as a physicist, were you inclined—even before you thought of the NRC, and you’re joining them—were you inclined to see civilian nuclear energy as a positive piece in the puzzle in terms of America’s energy challenges?

Jackson:

Well, I’ve always believed in what I call diversity of supply, and redundancy of source from the point of view of energy security. And I think energy security’s always been a big deal for this country and for other countries. And so with that I feel that source for sector abuse was something one had to always think about. And if one is looking at big baseload generation electrical generation, then it’s hard to replace a nuclear power plant.

Secondly, if one is thinking about climate change, and reducing dependency on fossil fuels, then the nuclear plant has a critical role. Thirdly, I equally believe that it’s a very sensitive technology, sensitive because you do have to run nuclear facilities the right way because the consequences can be large if there is a nuclear criticality event or some other event that occurs, as we saw with Chernobyl, although most people don’t know that Chernobyl was not a nuclear criticality event. It’s a steam explosion, but it still relates to how the reactor responded to certain things. And so I was always very, very aware of that in terms of the sensitivity, but as—

Zierler:

And in terms of climate change, you were even thinking about climate change as early as the 1990s when it’s a relatively unknown issue? You were aware of these things back then?

Jackson:

I’d say I was concerned about the environment. We did learn about various nitrogen-based oxides, learn about pollutants that come out of the effluent stack of a plant, look at burning carbon and what it meant to—you know, burning coal’s what I really mean. So, yes, and—what did they call it?—baghouse gases and all of those things. So, yes, one is thinking about environmental effects and, yes one knew that the carbon load, carbon dioxide load—you know, even then people knew it had some warming effect.

It was not as well quantified as it has been in the ensuing years. That’s what I meant about source for sector abuse, and one needed to have a balanced policy. But frankly, going in as chairman, my job was defined this way. My job was defined in the law. I was not there to proselytize for or against nuclear power, but rather knowing that it existed and it was being used to ensure that it would be used in as safe a way as possible.

And that was what my job was, that coupled with the national security implications of the use of nuclear materials, moving these materials around, looking at what’s generated at the end of a typical fuel cycle, how spent fuel—what it contained and how it could be used in untoward ways—as well as the environmental impacts if there wasn’t the appropriate disposition and handling of spent fuel. And so all of these things—and we should talk more about it because it’s a big set of issues. I was well aware that [laugh] people think about nuclear like a social issue, so I came to say it is a social issue—

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

—and because of how people feel about it. There are lot of things that I did at the NRC that were transformative. And what I would say is that I’ve had an interesting life as a physicist. I was going to say it at the end but I’ll say it now to set the stage for what we talk about. I’ve always felt it’s important to be an excellent physicist, to do good physics, and I feel I did that. But I probably somehow never saw myself as just being a bench scientist, so to speak, my whole career.

Zierler:

I mean, you said that even from MIT and the way that you organized some student movements that you had a talent for leadership, and you realized that you liked it and you were good at it.

Jackson:

That’s right, but I was also good at the science I was doing, and so I had to decide where did I want to put the weight down. When you talk to me about how did I feel about leaving the good life at Rutgers to become chairman of the NRC, the bigger decision was that I was going to be doing work that derived from the fundamental science where I would use it and the knowledge I had, but I would be marrying it with knowledge I’d gained about the business of nuclear power as well as the knowledge I had gained about public policy that is scientifically rooted and driven. And it would all come together in one point. That was exciting.

At the same time, I knew that one could not be chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and do research. And it was naive to think that one could. There are some things one can take up that are more administrative if they’re more in a direct line with the research that one can keep up and should keep up the research. But if you take really big jobs, and you’re going to do them well, you stay abreast of the science as much as you can, but you can’t be naive to think you’re going to do them both.

Zierler:

Well, Dr. Jackson, on that excellent piece of advice, on that note, I know you have to go for now, so I just want to thank you so much for your time and—

Jackson:

You’re welcome.

Zierler:

—I’ll greatly look forward to picking this up for next time whenever we can make that happen.

Jackson:

OK, thank you. You take care.

Zierler:

Thank you. You too.

Jackson:

OK, you too, bye-bye.

 

[Interview continues July 22, 2020]

 

Jackson:

Before we got started, I thought I would try to give you a little bit of context and you can record it or not record it.

Zierler:

We're recording right now, so by all means.

Jackson:

Well, I think, in order to understand my career and what I've done, it's been one of different phases. So you take a career in physics, and any career, it can take many paths. We know many physicists who do wonderful research and they stay on that path their whole careers. Dr. Mary K. Gaillard, who is a great friend and colleague, is one such example, and I so admire her, and, in fact, there's a book about her life. It's almost like a memoir. And that's one kind of path. I've always loved science, and it took me to physics because I love math, as well. I guess that's why I did theoretical physics. I wanted to be good at it, to do good physics, but I also had a motivation for how I could take both the abilities and the knowledge I had out into the larger world and have an impact.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And so you see that as I've gone through my career.

Zierler:

Absolutely.

Jackson:

I was never the classic one who necessarily—I could have—but who necessarily was going to stay and just do physics classically my whole career. But it also was a function of what opportunities came along. If you look at something like the NRC, the chairman of the NRC, that was such a big challenge, not for the prestige, but because of the importance of what it meant, particularly coming as it did after both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Zierler:

Yes.

Jackson:

And it was routed right in physics and the kind of technology that has its root in physics. That, coupled with things I had already been doing on the state level—at the intersection of science, technology, and public policy—seeing that it was something that I should do, both in terms of drawing on my background as a physicist, playing off of a clear interest in many activities at that nexus of science, technology, and public policy. It was something that linked to the area of my PhD. And that, coupled with my belief in public service, that this was public service at a very high level, and so I thought I should do it, but it was a big decision because it would have direct impact on my family, on my husband and our son, not to mention, at that point, walking away from my tenured full professorship.

Zierler:

Right. That's a wonderful bridge of context to provide in terms of the things that you were thinking about. Dr. Jackson, I want to ask you a question that's more on the political side, as you made this decision, or even on the ideological side. Now, obviously, there's a fundamental tension at the NRC between civilian nuclear energy industry that wants to keep regulation and oversight minimal, to some degree, and then there's the competing tension from various environmental groups, public action groups from the government, that wants to make that oversight and regulation stringent to ensure safety. And so I want to ask, even before you got there, and you sort of alluded to this already, as a citizen, as a physicist, as somebody who was already involved in civilian nuclear energy issues at the state level, what kind of world view did you bring to the table as you were about to accept this most important decision in the way to balance these tensions between oversight and not too much regulation?

Jackson:

Well, let me back you up. I had been involved on the board of a company that part of it was a public utility, but it also operated nuclear power reactors and had ownership in another site. So I understood quite a bit about the role of nuclear power in the stream of electric generation.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And I also understood the role of nuclear plans as part of a baseload capacity relative to that. So that's one part. The other is that I also understood how companies operated in terms of requirements that already existed at the state level in terms of how they had to serve their customer base, and how they had to take certain protective actions relative to particular kinds of facilities, such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, et cetera. So that's just kind of baseline knowledge. And so, if you want to call it worldview that I brought, having seen—I understood a lot more afterwards, after I was at the NRC—but seeing what had happened at Chernobyl and understanding the Three Mile Island perspective. Then I've always felt, and still do, that effective regulation is a key part of the fundamental protection of public health and safety. But it gave the nuclear industry the pathway, the running pathway, to be an industry.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

It also is an industry that has a unique protection—in terms of having a backstop by the federal government in terms of liabilities and things that would happen if there were a nuclear accident. And so, while you have an industry—and most industries are not enamored of regulation, but there is a kind of a social compact that undergirds the existence of that business which has to do with protection of public health and safety. Furthermore, it also is the root of public acceptance and so forth. As you know, there are strong feelings on multiple sides, but certainly two big sides of those who historically have been anti-nuclear power, a lot of it related to its historical role in the weapons race, but also because of things like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and some other incidents, and those who run the business. Where the regulator exists is on that knife edge—

Zierler:

Right.

Jackson:

—between those where the job of the regulator is not to kill the industry, because it is an important industry. And the Atomic Energy Act presumes that it will exist and is meant to have it exist, but also to say that one has to understand those who are nervous about it. But the way to walk that line, or the river that runs through it, as I like to say, is as written in the law, adequate protection of public health and safety. And, of course, the arguments always revolve around what does adequacy mean?

But there are scientific roots to how one gives meaning to that, having to do with radiation exposure, where it reaches a threshold that can be harmful, what kinds of releases can lead to that, where you might get to a point where you could have a criticality of that, meaning runaway nuclear reaction, even though Chernobyl was not that, and so forth. Those things are all part of the framework of a regulatory agency that basically rests on science and technology and the law. And those are the two poles in the tent, and they have to come together to provide a coherent regulatory framework. Now, I was not around, but certainly, after Three Mile Island, the whole structure of regulation was reorganized to an extent with the Energy Reorganization Act of 1980. And it changed some things at the NRC. In the event of a nuclear accident, it devolved the authority of the full commission to the chair because, at the time of TMI, Three Mile Island, people were not totally satisfied with the way the agency had responded.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

There was a feeling that the responsibility had to move, in the case of a major event, to the chairman of the agency. But the developing and the overall regulatory framework in terms of promulgation of regulations and adjudicatory processes for licensing facilities and things like that rested with the commission as a whole. But, again, the chairman had a given and defined responsibility in the law to lead that regulatory development and adjudication set of processes.

So the chairman, as well, was named as the principal executive officer of the agency to whom the major staff offices reported. Those three things, the responsibility, which is the real point, and the authority of the commission going to the chairman in an emergency, the chairman being the principal executive officer, and then the chairman having a responsibility to work with the commission in the regulatory development process. That is what the job was, and I took it very seriously. There are actually two types of tensions that always have existed. One has to do with the external having to do with the industry feeling over-regulated, and the external of the public's confidence in nuclear power. But the other was internal, having to do with the Reorganization Act and what it really meant for who was in charge, because that was the root of what people were disappointed about at the time of Three Mile Island. It was accustomed to the commission having all of these responsibilities.

But, as you can see, that, especially in an emergency, if you have five commissioners telling the staff what to do, then things can get bollixed up pretty quickly. I had been reading and reading and reading all the laws that govern what the NRC does, and I immediately felt there were a three-part set of principles that we had to use to frame what we did. The first was to reaffirm our fundamental health and safety responsibility under the law. And I can elaborate on that. Secondly, and importantly, to enhance our regulatory effectiveness, and I'll explain that. And then, the third was to position the NRC for change. And so I actually led the development of the agency's first strategic plan. There was a law passed that had been promulgated by Al Gore, actually. It was called GPRA, the Government Performance and Results Act, which actually required each agency to develop a strategic plan. But the question was, how would one frame it? These three guiding principles were at the root of our plan.

So reaffirming the fundamental public health and safety mission meant that there were certain clear responsibilities laid out in the law. The agency had to live by those, and one had to respect and live by the regulations that were promulgated. The industry had to live by them, and the agency had to live by them, meaning its staff, in carrying out the regulatory program, where they were inspectors, whether they did licensing activities, et cetera. And the point I always made was that you respect your own regulatory framework, which meant that you didn't have regulations on the books and decide you could ignore them.

And that if you had them, you would live by them, but there was a well-defined process to propose changes if they made no sense, if they were overly stringent, or if they did not accomplish what they were meant to accomplish. But you didn't just ignore them as the very regulatory body with that public health and nuclear non-proliferation, by the way, mission. But that led naturally, then, to regulatory effectiveness, because I also said you couldn't have what I call "good guy regulation" or "bad guy regulation," meaning that I knew him; we were on a ship together and he's a good guy and the performance of his plant or nuclear operation could be deteriorating under him, but because he was a good guy, things would kind of keep going in a certain direction before, all of a sudden, there was a problem. But equally bad was "bad guy regulation," that I decide, oh, you screwed up, you had this problem with your plant, and even though things were getting better, you still ratcheted, ratcheted, ratcheted down on—that made no sense.

That led to the third element, which is the positioning for change, that one still had this backdrop of the confidence of the public and the fundamental regulatory responsibility to protect public health and safety and take care of those nuclear proliferation responsibilities that the NRC didn't have uniquely, but, because you're dealing with enriched uranium and so on, one had to be concerned about that. There was a materials accounting and control responsibility that the NRC also had, and that led to a lot of things on the international front that I can talk to you about. But, at the same time, the world of nuclear generation was changing, and there were going to be more economic pressures. And, at the same time, you had just had the breakup of the former Soviet Union, you had the post-apartheid government coming into being in South Africa. And in these Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union, they had all these nuclear plants—

Zierler:

Yeah.

Jackson:

—that had been built in the Soviet era, but they were left with them without a whole lot of knowledge of how they were built. In fact, many of them didn't even have the design basis of the plants. They had no regulatory frameworks, because everything had come really under Russia. And then you had the ANC government, the post-apartheid government in South Africa where many of these people had been either political prisoners or in exile. And now they're coming in and they're running a government where the nuclear industry and the whole nuclear infrastructure had been run by the Afrikaners.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

So that's the world globally that I went into. I felt that the NRC, as the most important nuclear regulatory agency in the world, had to have its own ship in order, and that was this three-part piece of reaffirming our fundamental health and safety mission, enhancing our regulatory effectiveness, and positioning the agency for change. But that we had an important responsibility in this post-everything world to strengthen the global regulatory nuclear framework, so I did a lot on the international side, as well.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And we can talk through as much of it as you'd like.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, can you talk a little bit about another—I don't know if tension is the right word, but how you squared the circle in terms of, you know, you're appointed by President Clinton, the Clinton administration—

Jackson:

Yes.

Zierler:

—and yet, the NRC is an independent agency. And so can you talk a little bit about, first of all, on the day to day, how closely you're working with administration officials and how much are you trying to keep them at arm's length because you need to preserve the independence of the agency?

Jackson:

Well, the NRC is one of a handful of agencies that are called dependent regulatory agencies. And while our budgets, like all federal departments' and agencies' budgets, went through OMB, we were an independent regulatory agency. So, for instance, if you lead a cabinet department, your speeches are cleared by the White House. But if you're chairman of the NRC, they're not. But, as a courtesy, one would let the White House know what one was doing. I mean, I'm not crazy. But then, on the international front, the foreign policy is driven by the President of the United States.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And, therefore, one follows what that policy is. I would say that the Clinton administration was very respectful of the independence of the NRC. I mean, that was my lens. Now, I would meet regularly with the National Security Advisor, particularly of the Vice President, who had—I don't know if that was his remit or he had a particular interest. I would keep him apprised of what I was doing because I had a responsibility to do that, particularly on things that were happening in the international frame, but even on the domestic front. And, of course, I testified before the Congress all the time. And I don't know if you know—you probably do because you know everything, David—[laugh]

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

—an interesting thing about being a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee is that, essentially, you are agreeing—and this is a subtlety—that, when requested, you will go and testify and so on before the Congress. Now, you see things getting into to-ing and fro-ing in certain instances about not wanting some people to testify and so on. So, being the head of the NRC was like heading a cabinet department but with this moderating influence of working with a commission, the commissioners, but it also was an interesting agency because it actually had three or four functions.

So some people thought, how could one agency do this? It had an executive function which had to do with inspecting nuclear plants and things like that, and taking actions against them, if needed, and so forth. So it's an executive authority. It had a legislative authority because it promulgated regulation. But, as long as they went through the proper approaches with the Administrative Procedures Act and so on, they had the force of law. In fact, if one wanted to challenge a regulation, it would go through the federal court system, and I believe at the appeals level.

And then, the third was that it had a judicial function because, when one would carry out a major licensing action, then it was an adjudicatory process. You had administrative law judges and so on, and a whole process by which either regulatory actions were challenged or how new licenses were given. It was an interesting kind of balance of things. And then, finally, it had a policy-making perspective with promulgating generalized policies. But then it had this international piece with working with other agencies of the US government with responsibilities in the nuclear arena and issues that related, not just to nuclear safety, but nuclear non-proliferation. So I mentioned the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

So we actually worked with a number of states in Central and Eastern Europe, Ukraine among them, to help them do several things: One, in certain instances, to actually develop nuclear legislation, but also especially to develop a regulatory framework, nuclear regulations, to train regulators. We actually had inspectors from these countries come to the NRC for months at a time to learn how we went about inspecting nuclear power plants.

And then, working with them as needed to reconstruct the design basis of their plants so that they could do risk assessments to improve the safety envelope of those plants. We did a similar thing in South Africa with, again, nuclear legislation, nuclear regulations, training inspectors, and doing risk assessments. And particularly with those who were part of the ANC or post-apartheid government, because they had a disadvantage relative to the Afrikaners. And so we did a lot there. And that's work that I'm quite proud of the agency for and proud to have led.

But then, that led to one other key thing in the international arena—well, two actually. One was the NRC led the promulgation of what was called the Convention on Nuclear Safety, that was a document of principles, really, that countries would sign onto—that they would commit to enhancing and strengthening and having a good framework to preserve the safety of the nuclear facilities, particularly nuclear power plants. And we were the last ones to sign, because we had a hard time getting it through the Congress. A certain senator from North Carolina at the time didn't like it, but we finally did get it through, actually with the help of then-Senator Joe Biden. So, even though we drafted the convention, the NRC, and pushed its promulgation, we were one of the last—or maybe the last signatory, but we got it done in terms of getting it ratified and so forth.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Jackson:

So, up until the time I became chairman, there had been meetings called of nuclear regulators under two bodies every year, one was the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the other was the OECD/NEA, the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. They would have the regulators come and we'd talk about our things and so forth. Now, I should back you up and tell you that the IAEA is an interesting agency because, up until a certain point, it was very dependent on the US, the forensic laboratories. When you talk about sending out nuclear inspectors, these people came out of the US. US National Labs were part of that. The NRC had some roles in that. But, as we would meet, it became clear that the regulators needed their own independent forum.

So, again, we pushed and I pushed to create an independent body of regulators from around the world. It was an entity that we named the International Nuclear Regulators' Association, which brought together the heads of the regulatory bodies, at that time, of Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US. We also had South Korea at that time as an observer, and we did some work with China, but we didn't think they were quite ready to be part of the group. And interestingly enough, those who had the Soviet era plans, particularly the so-called VVERs—they were pressurized water reactor design plants—formed their regulatory group because Russia was not part and was not invited to be part of this group. And the INRA still exists almost 25 years later. We formed it in 1997, and I was the first chairman of the group. And we pushed it from the NRC. I was the first chairman for the first two years, from '97 to '99, which corresponded with the second two years of my—I mean, the third and fourth years of my tenure as NRC chair, and so I'm very proud of that, the group still exists.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

I want to go back to the three points having to do with the agency itself, we developed the strategic plan. We actually did change the regulatory framework, however, creating a new reactor oversight program that had tried to get away from the good guy/bad guy regulation and have it be performance based, the oversight, the inspection and so on. And that was both part of reaffirming our fundamental mission and improving our regulatory effectiveness. And then I pushed the promulgation of risk-informed, performance-based regulation where the risk informing was predicated on doing more formalized risk assessments, including probabilistic risk assessment. And that, by the way, was also what we trained a number of the NIS, the Newly Independent States, to look at risks and their plans and improve the safety envelopes.

And then, with positioning for change, developing a planning, budgeting, and performance management framework that was called PBPM for Planning, Budgeting, and Performance Management, to improve how the agency did its planning year to year, linked to its strategic plan and how it would create the budget around that and manage the entities within the agency and the leaders of them in terms of their performance against their plans. PBPM still exists. So risk informed regulation, and that introduction of that language into the nuclear regulation of being risk informed and performance based, the new reactor oversight program creating the process, the first—the process to renew the licenses of existing nuclear power plants and allowing them to extend their licenses for 20 years. Some have now extended them for another 20 years.

And the first nuclear plant went through into that process when I was the chairman, and I was the one that oversaw the creation of that license renewal process. It was so much. At that point, we were getting highly-enriched uranium from the Russians that was blended down and made into fuel to burn up in nuclear plants. That was a way of bringing down the stockpiles of that particularly, with securing nuclear material in these Newly Independent States working with the Department of Energy, which was responsible for the physical protection. And our role was called MPC&A, Materials Protection, Control, and Accounting. So the DOE had a responsibility on protection, control, and accounting, but we had a responsibility on control and accounting, particularly when the materials went into fuels. It was an exciting time.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

There were a lot of things that I accomplished, personally, but that the agency I led accomplished. And so I'm proud of that, particularly when so many of those things have stood the test of time.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

The risk-informed regulation, the INRA, and it's been expanded, and the PBPM. And the PBPM ended up making the NRC rate as among the best managed agencies, and it still exists. And if you look up PBPM, you can find it on the web. So there you have it. I think that had to do with why Rensselaer wanted me as its president, because I was a change agent. I view myself as a visionary and a pragmatist, because it's important to have a vision and to have a big picture, but if you don't have to put the puzzle pieces together—

Zierler:

Right.

Jackson:

—you don't accomplish very much.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, you mentioned that you worked closely with the National Security Advisor of the Vice President.

Jackson:

Correct.

Zierler:

I'm curious; of course, Vice President Al Gore was an early policy official to sound the alarm over climate change and fossil fuel—

Jackson:

Correct.

Zierler:

—carbon emissions. I'm curious if he had a particular interest in the nuclear energy industry as a means to mitigate climate change, and I wonder, as a physicist, as a scientist, if you thought about those issues and you thought about any opportunities to do your part as chair of the NRC to champion nuclear energy as an alternative long-term power source for our nation?

Jackson:

Well, I think I've done a little more of that with being out of the NRC, because being the chairman of the NRC, or even if one was a commissioner, the law was pretty strict. And that's why the NRC was created separately from what was originally called ERDA, the Energy Research and Development Administration, which became the Department of Energy. It was on the DOE side that the promulgation, the advocacy of nuclear power, as well as having the weapons, was embedded, but the regulatory oversight was embedded in the NRC. It was important, and we couldn't advocate for nuclear power, so let's start there. The other part is that, at the time that I was chairman of the NRC—I became chair in 1995—Al Gore was an early proponent of issues and sounding the alarm about the climate. He became stronger post his time in government, but what I did believe was that, if nuclear power could serve a role in mitigating climate change—and I believed it could, I couldn't promote that—but I felt the only way it could would be that, one, the public had enough confidence in it.

Zierler:

Right, right.

Jackson:

And that meant that, too, we had to do our regulatory job as effectively and fairly as we could. So no under-regulation, otherwise you endanger the public and lose public confidence, and no over-regulation to try to kill it through regulation. And so one is walking this line. I've always operated that way, that I'm very mindful of what the law says, and that's how I said the agency had to operate. But how could we be more effective and fair in it? Which is how we ended up with the new Reactor Oversight Program.

Zierler:

What were some of the major challenges you saw in the civilian nuclear energy industry once you got settled in the job, and how well do you feel like you resolved those issues or you played a significant role in resolving those issues by the time you left this position?

Jackson:

Well, I think it related to your initial point. One is this tension between the industry feeling it was over-regulated and a number of people in the public feeling it was under-regulated. I actually, as we were leading to creating the new Reactor Oversight Program, I actually brought everyone—I used to literally have meetings at a U-shaped table to bring everybody to the party, the commission, leaders of the nuclear industry, and people from the watchdog groups. I literally had them all at the same table interspersed and we would talk about the issues and the tensions and what made sense, what the NRCs responsibilities were, what the limits of what it could and could not do were. And then we would take that away and then fold that into our regulatory thinking.

So I would say to you that I came away, in terms of my tenure, with a very balanced score card that still exists. So, to have created the new Reactor Oversight Program, which I think everybody felt was a better way to go about it, that linked the stringency of that oversight to performance but had certain triggers; to have created and brought in risk-informed insights and, as much possible, probabilistic risk assessment, which I think many people are getting back to—it had kind of waned a little bit; to create a license renewal program which definitely gave new lifeblood to the nuclear industry; to create an international framework through the INRA, as well as the specific work we did in Europe and South Africa; and to strengthen the overall administrative and overall performance of the NRC. I mean, I would think I've already answered your question.

Zierler:

And, on the international front, who were your most important partners, either institutionally or on a personal level, to help you achieve this vision you had of establishing an international regulatory framework?

Jackson:

Oh, it was the head of the nuclear regulatory or nuclear agencies of the countries that I mentioned.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

Because those were the ones that came together. And, in fact, when I was inaugurated as president of Rensselaer, the head of the nuclear regulatory body of the UK spoke at my inauguration, my investiture as president. He had become the head of the INRA. So I was very happy and proud of that.

Zierler:

Just to fast-forward a little bit, and this would certainly be a question about you from the outside looking in, what were your reactions to the Fukushima disaster? Did you see this as evidence that we would've seen a lot more Fukushimas absent the efforts that you undertook? Did you see this as a breakdown in the system? How did you understand that within the broader framework of what you wanted to put together internationally?

Jackson:

Well, I think two things: One, Fukushima was a classic black swan event.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

Right? It's a thousand-year event, even though something like that had occurred a thousand years before in Japan. OK. It's a thousand-year event.

Zierler:

You're talking about the tsunami, of course?

Jackson:

Well, yes, but I'm making a point here. I think there was an evolution, and it actually came out of my learning about and pushing probabilistic risk assessment. And let me tell you what I meant by that. PRA forces you to look at what we call "decision trees" where you look at, if this happens, how does it affect other systems? So if something breaks down here or doesn’t operate the way it should, how is it linked to other things in the plant? And what are the probabilities of that occurring? And then, on down the line.

And so, then, when you go through and you build a PRA framework on that logic tree, then it allows you to really understand how different systems truly interconnect and where the greatest vulnerabilities are, and how they could lead to some situation that can spin out of control in a plant if unchecked. So that led my thinking to what I call—and I still call—what I think most people don't think enough about. People do risk assessment, so they look at this vulnerability and that one and that one, and my whole framework is intersecting vulnerabilities with cascading consequences.

So going back to Fukushima, which, again, was a black swan event, and so it was a classic case of intersecting vulnerabilities that, when triggered by something, led to cascading consequences. And let me explain it to you very quickly. Because nuclear plants, as they are designed today, really need water, they need a lot of water, they typically are built where there are sources of water. They are on coastlines and sometimes on lakes and so forth. And you know that Japan is part of this Ring of Fire and it's pretty earthquake prone. We also know that, depending on the nature of how the earth shifts in an earthquake and if it's underwater, it can trigger a tsunami, and we saw that in Indonesia, right? And so, what were the intersecting vulnerabilities? Well, the inherent vulnerability was the vulnerability of Japan to earthquakes.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

The second is being on the coast and with the geology of the underwater environment, and also susceptible to tsunamis. So now you have a plant that's built on the coast, and you have the first two intersecting vulnerabilities, the earthquake and the tsunami, so the plant is subject to both of those. The plant did what it was supposed to do, that when it had the earthquake it shut down. But even when a nuclear plant is shut down, it depends upon having water, but fresh water, not saltwater. When you ended up with the tsunami, it not only swept into the plant and affected it, it also disrupted the generators, because they were all low down, so that was a vulnerability, that they were not placed high enough.

And then, finally, it wiped out the regional grid. Nuclear plants are built with backup power. Most of the time, they get a feedback of power off the grid when they're not running, but the ultimate backup is having diesel generators that can provide power for a certain period of time to keep certain systems running, and that all got wiped out by the tsunami. That's the classic case of all these intersecting vulnerabilities leading to the cascading consequence that spent fuel pools got hot, they had hydrogen explosions, and they ended up having to pour seawater into the plant. And radiation and seawater do terrible things to nuclear power plants. And that's what you saw.

And then you saw radiation release that it wasn't like Chernobyl, but it was enough that our Navy had measured elevated radiation levels off the coast of Japan. So a question is, about things I did, I did spend time with the Japanese about probabilistic risk assessment, but I didn't visit every plant, although I actually had visited Fukushima. I guess everybody knew that, with the plants on the coastline, there could always be more an effect from earthquakes, but this combination of the earthquake triggering a tsunami, the tsunami wiping out both the grid that connected into the plant, and washing over the generators, and therefore you not being able to keep things cool and protect the plant and its systems. And then having to revert to seawater, then you know you've destroyed the plant. So that's the issue.

But, at the same time, you recognize Japan doesn't have the access to oil and natural gas and things that, in this country, we're moving away from, but we take for granted. We were as close as we were going to be to oil energy independence with all the shale and all that, but that has its issues, not just from a climate point of view but from a geologic stability point of view, as well. There are always intersecting pieces of our natural environment, of the natural environment to the built environment, and interactions between pieces of the built environment. And you saw all the cascade through that with Fukushima.

Zierler:

And so, today, looking forward, what do you see as the long-term prospects of civilian nuclear energy for our energy future?

Jackson:

Well, I think it depends on where you are.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

OK. I think more technologies having to do with wind, offshore wind, solar, and more efficient use of solar, technologies that integrate systems better. We have a center at Rensselaer called the Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology where the idea is to blend the aesthetics of design with how you design integrated systems that optimize energy use, meaning energy efficiency, and have less deleterious effects on the environment. And how do you have as clean an indoor environment as you can but have dual uses of things.

So let me give you an example. People have designed solar concentrating panels, and they can both govern how the lighting is inside a built space as the day goes on in ways that can lessen the need for the use of artificial light, but these are solar-concentrating panels that can also do things like heat water. And that water can be used in heat pumps, so you can either heat the facilities or use the heat pumps to cool facilities. And you can also have these things respond. You can build microturbines into buildings that can pick up on just the wind and use that even to generate enough electricity to run at least certain simple systems in a building, all to the end of not needing some big generation source.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

While at the same time, looking at how you can purify the air inside a building using bioengineered plants. So most people are being green, they come and put a plant in their office, but some plants attract fungi, and so it's not as healthy as you think. What you want are plants that can take toxins out of the air and not attract bacteria and other things, so this is all part of what we call "phytoremediation walls,"—you could think of it as GMOs, like genetically-modified plants, but they have unique properties to clean the air in a building.

We've actually worked with agencies in New York, with their emergency communications center they built after 9/11, to help with how you can have cleaner air there and so on. That's what I mean about how science, technology, and public policy all come together. One end, this nuclear arena we've spent the time talking about, but the other end, how you design new types of built environments. We were going to launch this spring an institute in New York in Industry City called the Institute for Energy, the Built Environment and Smart Systems. It really has to do with building off of and being even more rigorous about using the cyber-physical systems in unique ways, as well as these other kinds of technologies with AI embedded to be able to respond to the environment and create healthier living and working spaces, but with greater energy efficiency. And that's kind of our game.

The other is, as you know, fresh water is a precious commodity. So we have a project that started at Lake George. It's called the Jefferson Project. Now, it was named for Thomas Jefferson, and I'm going to leave aside the whole thing about him and his slaves, but he came to Lake George and he called it the most beautiful water he ever saw, so that's where the name came from. Lake George is a pretty clean lake for the size of it. It's probably about two or three miles wide at its widest but it's 32 miles long. And it's a pretty clear lake. The southern lake is not quite as clear as the northern part, but it's pretty clear, and it doesn't have the harmful algal blooms and things like that. So the question is, how do you understand it as well as understand the effect of, salt treatment or things people think they do for other reasons?

So we have something like 51 sensor nodes around the lake, but, in all, there are about 500 sensors that range from things that measure water runoff, atmospheric conditions, wind, understanding circulation in the lake, Doppler measurements down into the lake looking at biota in the lake and how that's affected by different things that happen. And these sensors do have some embedded intelligence that it can start taking more data when weather conditions change—some of them are actual weather stations, so you're understanding runoff conditions into the lake, how it affects it if you do certain things on land what happens in the lake. How much does the water turn over in the lake? How much can the water clean itself? What kinds of underwater waves or phenomena affect how pollutants might move in the lake? All these things. It's been successful enough with things like kind of cutting down on salt and some other things, but even looking at how these sorts of additives, if they go into the lake, affect genetic mutations in the creatures that live in the lake.

We've been asked to look at other lakes, Skaneateles, et cetera, around New York State. It's a partnership of Rensselaer with IBM and with The Fund for Lake George, which is an environmental advocacy group. It’s been going on now for about four or five years. But it's a translatable platform, although the sensors are pretty expensive, but it's also a big data project because you're collecting all this data and using different data analytics techniques to extract actionable intelligence as well as feedback into the sensors to make public policy decisions. So one has to do with the built environment, and the other has to do with the natural environment, but they both have to do with using science and technology to inform economic, public policy, and other decisions.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, one last question on the NRC, and that is—you touched on it in terms of referencing the intersections of the responsibilities you had. I want to ask specifically: To what extent on the day-to-day did you rely on your expertise as a physicist, either specifically with nuclear physics, but also generally with using your powers of analysis that you gained through your education in physics, how much of that worldview and experience informed your day-to-day on the job?

Jackson:

It informed my day-to-day job all the time because my responsibility was to work with the heads of the different offices—these were the equivalent of the officers of the NRC—on everything from our inspection programs to big licensing actions to what we were doing at the IAEA, to what we were doing in Europe and other places, to creating this risk-informed, performance-based approach. And, being a theoretical physicist, my background is very rooted in that. PRA was really based on doing Bayesian statistics, and I taught myself all of that so that I would understand more, and then how it then applied in this kind of logic tree framework. I pushed and got the commission ultimately to adopt the risk-informed regulation but had to work it through the staff to have the commission be comfortable with it. And I would be meeting with delegations from the countries around the world, as well as with representatives from the nuclear arena. I had to conduct open public commission meetings and whenever I met with delegations or met with people from the industry or any of them, I always had general counsel, the lawyers in the room, and other relevant staff. You don't ever meet as chairman with the people you're regulating by yourself. And I, conducted a lot of meetings.

So one had to understand the intricacies of nuclear systems, nuclear technology in order to make informed regulatory decisions. And, as I said, the mathematical and scientific background made learning and understanding PRA pretty straightforward. When one was talking about regulatory limits and frameworks, one had to understand how these plants operated and what their technological limits were. So one had to understand the nuclear fuel cycle and all of that, and it was every day. It was a combination of marrying that science, knowledge, and how that played into the technology. And taking that technological knowledge and understanding, how it played in the business. Taking all of that knowledge to understand then what kinds of pressures and other things did the nuclear industry live under, but also understanding at the root with the nuclear piece how it could affect—or what things could make it spin out of control. You could also understand how it played into issues of material controls, signatures of nuclear things, all of that kind of thing.

I'd say what I brought was the combination of the science and technology background, the understanding of how the business operated, because I had been on the board of this company and had some other involvements with the nuclear power industry before I went to the NRC, and understanding public policy and how you work with legislators and politicians because I had been appointed by Governor Tom Kean in New Jersey to this New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. It was created specifically to take bond issue money and make investments in the major universities in the state, basically two public and two private—the publics being Rutgers and NJIT, New Jersey Institute of Technology, the privates being Princeton and Stevens Institute of Technology—to make investments in areas that were deemed to be important to New Jersey's economy. Things like advanced biotechnology and medicine, materials informatics, biochemistry, and all of that. We created major research centers around the state. But how you do that—and the commission had on it politicians, as well as business leaders.

So Roy Vagelos, who was then the CEO of Merck, was on it. Bill Baker, who was the president of Bell Labs, was on it. Ed David, who was then the president of Exxon Research and Engineering, was on it. Ken Rogers—was he on it? Yes, at one point, because he was president of Stevens Institute of Technology, was on it. Harold Shapiro, who was the president of Princeton, was on it. And so it went. And these people were on it by virtue of the offices they held. Then there were citizens, and “Shirley Who” was one of those citizens.

I was actually on the Scientific Fields Committee that made decisions about where the money would be invested, where in science and technology the investments would be made. I was also on the budget committee, so I understood how the sausage was made. I'm working with the politicians, because it also included the speaker of the assembly and the leader of the Senate, majority leader. So it had the majority and the minority leader. It had these business leaders who led primarily science and technology-based enterprises, and then I had university presidents, and then I had the people like me. It was a learning culture that really helped me to understand how science and technology, public policy, and politics, and economic development, and business all came together. And that was like getting an MBA. So, by the time I went to become chairman of the NRC, I'd already had that exposure. And then, I had been sitting on the board of this company for eight years by the time I went to the NRC.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

I went on the Board of Public Service Enterprise Group in 1987, and I became chairman of the NRC in 1995. I chaired its nuclear oversight committee, but I was also asked to join an advisory board at the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, which was formed in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident by the industry to improve industry performance. So I got to see things through the lens of the industry, but I also understood how the nuclear facilities played into the business case and the business of electrical generation and how regulation affected them from that side. But then, as I said, I also had the opportunity, because I had these different gubernatorial appointments, with understanding the politicians. I also was appointed by Governor Christie Whitman to the Governor's Economic Master Plan Commission, and I was asked to be the vice chair of the regulatory reform group, not so much nuclear but regulation as it affected business. So I've had some unique opportunities.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And, because of that, I've learned a lot. And I was on the board of the New York Stock Exchange. Did you know that?

Zierler:

I did not know that one.

Jackson:

Correct. I was on the board of the New York Stock Exchange for seven years, and I actually chaired the regulatory board. They formed it as a separate regulatory entity as part of the New York Stock Exchange, and it had its own board, in addition to the New York Stock Exchange Board. I was on that board for seven years, but I also chaired the board of the regulatory panel. But, again, I was asked to join because I brought the science and technology and regulatory perspective, because this was post my NRC tenure. So I've had a chance to do some interesting things.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, you mentioned earlier that you surmised that your reputation at the NRC for being a visionary and an agent of change was central to the circumstances leading to you becoming president of RPI. So I'd like you to sort of narrate how that process came about. And, specifically, I'm curious what your sense of—what were some of the structural challenges at RPI which would've mandated that they would have wanted a visionary, somebody to come in and really change up what was happening there? If you can talk about both of those items.

Jackson:

Well, Rensselaer, RPI, is the oldest private technological university in the United States, and probably the oldest technological university, so it's older than my alma mater. It was founded in 1824 and my alma mater in 1861. And, at one point, they were all neck and neck, but MIT had gone off to be the big research behemoth, and I'm not saying that's the model we necessarily wanted, but Rensselaer had not. There were a number of things that needed to be changed in terms of its commitment to being a research university or not. The physical campus, some internal processes and administrative things that really needed to be strengthened, and some budgetary challenges.

So the board—and what the student experience was. So the board brought me in to be a change agent, to look at these things, to look at RPI's positioning in the universe of major universities and major research universities, to look at a number of our internal processes, look at our graduate and undergraduate programs, to think about the physical campus and so forth. And they didn't tell me go fix this, this, this, this, this. The things that I fixed were things I discovered. I am a planner and most people think, ugh, planning, that's something else we've got to do. The thing I both learned and taught people, I think, at the NRC is planning is not another task. It's how you organize and under what rubric you organize the things you have to do. If you think of it as another task you fail because then somehow planning is here and then these are the things you really have to do. And that's actually silly, because if you have things that are important, you've got to understand how they interrelate, you've got to understand whether they're important to do or to continue doing or not. You have to understand what things are missing, what else you really need to do, and how they all relate to an end, some major thing you're trying to accomplish.

When I came in, I immediately launched—actually in my first year, right after my inauguration as president—but I even started with a framework for how we would do the planning the summer I was hired, the summer I started, with what I called an initiating document,—it was kind of our plan to plan. And then, one week from the time I was inaugurated, I launched the Rensselaer Plan process.

And we started then and we went through a couple of iterations of the plan. It was a complicated process, but I like complication, how you bring it all together. We sent the plan to the board in April of my first year, and they unanimously approved it, the board unanimously approved it in May, and ever since then we've been off to the races. And so we had the first version of the plan. We simply called it the Rensselaer Plan, and it's called the Rensselaer Plan because there was an early pedagogical or teaching and learning plan that had been written out in the earliest days of the university. It was called the Rensselaerean Plan. I always felt that our plan was the modern-day embodiment of the Rensselaerean idea, so we just called it the Rensselaer Plan. And now, of course, we're on our second variant of it. But it covers everything.

I mean, I'm also one that doesn't say, you just have a list of "strategic initiatives." You look at what has to coherently change. So we, of course, focused on residential undergraduate education, on research and graduate education, on entrepreneurship as something that we teach, do research on, and do. We focused on our underlying administrative processes. We called them enabling activities. And we focused on our communities, meaning we are a community ourselves; we have the communities that we interact with locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, and our internal communities with our faculty, staff, students, and our alumni. The issue is to lay out what the key issues were we needed to deal with, and we structured the plan with commitment statements. The first plan had 144. Then we would develop priorities against those that the leadership team agrees upon in a big leadership retreat we have every year.

This year it's been consumed by COVID-19, but we still are living out the plan. And we use those, as we call them, "institute-wide highest priorities" to drive the linkages among the different divisions, we call them "portfolios." But they also have priorities they identify linked to the plan. We've used it ever since I've been here, and we have a performance planning and budgeting process that you could say was a take-off of what I had put into place at the NRC, and we use it to drive what we do. It's allowed us to make a lot of change in the nature of the undergraduate experience both in the classroom and outside the classroom, in the support we provide the students in various ways, with the physical campus, both in terms of where students live, what they do outside the classroom; in terms of research facilities, upgrading pre-existing facilities, building new ones, both on the pedagogical side and on the research side; launching major new research initiatives; strengthening our financial profile. We had to borrow a lot to do what we did, and, at one point, we had really high debt relative to our endowment, but then I committed, a few years ago, to what I call "the crossover," to have the endowment cross the debt, and we've done that.

And even in the midst of all that has happened with COVID and so forth, that's where we are. We remain that way. We're raising money through our second capital campaign. A bit more challenging with COVID but we're actually making progress. And the student experience is totally different. We have some real presence in biotechnology and the life sciences, and we've worked, in fact, with our partner, Mount Sinai in New York, on some protocols for treating COVID, the most sick COVID patients, as well as creating for them a UVC disinfecting system for masks for surgical and N-95 masks, and making face shields and so on. Very practical things in that regard, but understanding the science of COVID-19, of the coronavirus. We've put it to work.

And now we've developed our start-up and testing protocol, and so, at this point, we're planning to open at the end of August. But we do monitor the national COVID situation because the plans could change, because the governor may decide that's not prudent for the colleges and universities to open. Right now we have that go ahead. Or we ourselves may decide, but we've taken steps to dedensify the campus, to have a whole protocol around PPE, testing, quarantine as needed, isolation. We have a whole protocol we called T to the power of 3, T3SQ, which is testing, tracing, tracking, surveillance, and quarantine isolation, and it's very detailed. But it's on the web. You can look it up. We're about to go into a new phase with bringing people back. We've done some of that already, but with being very careful.

Zierler:

When you came in—this is really a leadership question—how did you determine who were the people that were most important for you to hear from as you were establishing a mandate and a vision for the university? Did you go on a listening tour? Did you want to talk to the deans and the faculty and the board? Did you want to talk to your predecessor or fellow university presidents? Who did you see as your most important constituents in order to get a sense of the most vital issues that needed your attention from the beginning?

Jackson:

Well, first of all, when I was interviewed, I certainly talked with the faculty, with our faculty senate, with the chaired faculty, with students, with alumni and alumnae, with business leaders who were supportive of and interacting with the university, some community members, and, of course, what the board's mandate was. But let me talk to you about listening tours. That's what most presidents say they do.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Jackson:

So I have a different approach, and that was I could do a listening tour, and I had done that essentially, first of all, as part of the interview process. Secondly, I particularly did it that first summer when I came. I started on July the 1st of '99, so I had the opportunity to spend the summer talking to people. But let me explain something else to you, because it does relate to the listening tour. I was offered the position of president in December of 1998, and I was offered it just as I was about to go back through a senate confirmation process to be reappointed to the commission and to be renominated and hopefully confirmed, and to continue as chairman. But then along came this offer. I had to decide, so I decided I would take it. However, two things: My son was in high school. He was in his senior year, and it was disruptive enough that I had gone off to the NRC.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And I didn't want to be disrupting his life yet again. Secondly—and he was just in the throes of finishing applications to college and all that. But, secondly, I had promised him—this was part of the compact in interviewing—that I would finish my tenure as chairman of the NRC. So I asked the RPI board to have me start July 1st, so this was six, seven months later. And they said OK. But what I did was—and this was on my own nickel, because I was chairman of the NRC, so I wasn't taking any money from Rensselaer—I flew here once a month to talk with all the folks from all those groups you mentioned to get an understanding of how they saw the university, what its challenges were. I was having running conversations with certain board members, but, in particular, the chairman of the board.

So, in fact, my listening tour occurred before I ever started. And then, it was reinforced that summer through a series of meetings that I had with people. I met with all these different folks, the people on the faculty, with students, with staff, et cetera. And I have felt that obviously the faculty—and our original plan was written this way—the faculty are the academic heart of the university, obviously, but students are the reason we exist as a university. But, you know, you can't do anything without what I call the great enablers, and those are the staff. And the plan is also structured around those ideas. I came away from that six-month back and forth, as well as the more intense onsite discussions in the summer months of '99, with this clear understanding that the plan had to cover the five areas that I mentioned. I used my inaugural address to lay that out, but I talked to you about the initiating document, and it said that we were going to build our planning around five questions. And the five questions, if I can remember them, are: In each, everything we do, what is the intellectual core, is it important and why? And the why should not be just because we happen to be doing it. Secondly, if we've decided it's important, are we in a leadership position? And if we're not, then the third question is: Are we in a position such that, with the right focus and investment, we can come into it a leadership position? The fourth was: Are there things that we're not doing today that we must do if we intend to be a leading institution? And the fifth is: What are we willing to give up, walk away from, or transform to create a platform for change?

So, with those questions, then, I launched the planning process. And that planning process occurred literally along three axis, one was what I called the horizontal axis where I set up a steering committee that was co-chaired by the then acting provost and the vice president for student life, and then made up of people—not the cabinet but people below that. We literally set up having a series of public meetings focused on the different portfolios based on these questions, but also other things people wanted to bring up.

And the heads of those areas could not chair the meeting, the steering committee did that. Those heads could attend, but they were not running the show, and anybody from around the campus was invited. We had a series of structured and unstructured discussions. So that was what I called the horizontal axis. Then, we had a vertical axis, where each leader of each portfolio was asked to take the same five questions and have discussion with their people, and to come away with answers. Those are the verticals, the deep dive. And then, we have what we call the orthogonal, where we did bring in some experts from the outside, a group call the Washington Advisory Group. We had the gentleman who was head of Exxon Research and Engineering, Ed David, who was also a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And we had Erick Bloch, who had been director of the NSF and was from IBM and had developed the IBM 360 system. And, Frank Press, who had been the president of the National Academies. We had them come in and take a look at us, particularly from the research point of view. We also had a gentleman who was the executive VP, so we had a lot of the administrative functions, from Caltech, and we had a former president of MIT, technological university, come in and look at us. And they gave me a confidential report. We took all of these things—and, of course, I shared the key elements of the confidential report with the steering committee—and brought them to the cabinet, meaning all the VPs and so on and so on, and we literally hashed out what we must do in all of these five areas I initially mentioned.

I divided the cabinet into the writers and the readers. The writers were essentially the provost and the vice president for student life, because of faculty and the students, and the readers were everybody else, including myself. They drafted a plan. Initially, we had some outside help, but then we decided the consultants were a waste of time. And then, we would literally go over the plan. I'd lead the discussion and we would meet literally from morning to night. Now, what did that mean? It meant that we would start typically at 8:00 in the morning, and we would typically end at 8:00 at night, but when we were in the throes of really pinning it down, it might be midnight, and then we'd start at 8:00 the next morning. This is true, 8:00 or 9:00.

And so we developed the first draft plan by December, and we put it out, sent it around to all of our constituents, all of them. And we said, well, here's some questions about it we'd like you to answer for us, but you can give us whatever other commentary you want. But here are some direction-setting questions. So we got all the feedback, all the feedback, and then I had the steering group—we distilled them out to here's some things we ought to think about relative to how the plan might need to change. So we did that, and we discussed it and discussed it in the cabinet. And all the time, I'm having running discussions or meetings with the board of trustees about what the key emergent themes were coming out of the planning process. And, when we sent out the draft plan, we sent it to the trustees. Now, they were ultimately going to approve it, so I asked them to comment on it as individuals, drawing not only from their experience as trustees, but as individuals. This wasn't about a group discussion. And most of them gave us feedback. Some of them would call me and give it to me. Others would write things.

We took all that in, and we came up with what we called the Final Draft Plan. And then we had a series of meetings that were led by the provost and the VP of student life with our key constituencies, with the faculty, with the student leaders, with a group called the Pillars of Rensselaer—these people are people who are recognized by their peers as being truly outstanding—so visited with them, with our alumni association board. Now, when we sent it out for commentary, it went out to everybody, thousands of people, and these were more structured feedback meetings. I attended the meetings; I did not lead them. I had these others do it. I was there to listen to see if there were any final things we needed to change, but also to give people feedback of what things were likely not to change.

So we got all this and then we finalized the plan. Now, this was around February, early March. The board was ready to approve the plan then, and I said, no, we've got to go through this final round of discussion. We sent it to them, as I said, in April, and they unanimously approved it in May, and that was it. And when we did the second plan, I had a somewhat similar structure, but since the second plan was bridging off of the first plan, it was a little bit faster but it was a somewhat similar process, but embedded in it was essentially grading us against what we had accomplished in the first plan. And then, the second plan, we had 130 commitment statements, and we literally had to check them all. So that's us. So does that answer your question about the listening tour?

Zierler:

[laugh] Absolutely! And, yes, indeed, a lot of people use the term "listening tour," and I appreciate how you went about it in a bit of a different way.

Jackson:

You get the same information.

Zierler:

Right.

Jackson:

You're spending time with people. And so, yes, I did a listening tour, but I happened to do it while I was on my own nickel flying up here on weekends, or taking a day off once a week to come up here—or at least once a month, rather, and to sometimes spend a couple of days to hear from people. And, as I said, more intense discussions the summer I started. It's just that you could say, well, for that time I wasn't formally the president, I was the president elect, and then in the other part I was the president, but it was at the beginning of my tenure. So I would argue that I spent a long time talking. But I also felt that the university would learn me and I would learn it as we went through and did the planning, and I think that's true, too.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, as the plan got underway, what were some of the most important feedback mechanisms you relied on to assess how successful it was going?

Jackson:

Well, I think we, A) have always laid out metrics against which we monitor ourselves. B), I ask and expect the heads of the different areas, different portfolios, as they develop their yearly plans, to be listening to and getting input from their own people. And C), I actually have two town hall meetings every year to hear directly from people. And, in addition, I also meet with the faculty in a meeting called by the faculty senate twice a year. And in the early days, I would also meet with the grand marshal and the president of the student union of student leaders. Today the VP from student life does that on a regular basis. We have a student life committee of the board of trustees at every meeting of that group which occurs on campus three times a year. The board hears from the student leaders, and they say what they want. They talk about where things are in the university as they see it. And, similarly, we have an academic affairs and research committee, and we have not just the deans involved, but individual faculty members, as well.

Zierler:

Over the years, have you been able to remain active in physics?

Jackson:

No. There are presidents who say they still do some physics or some whatever it is, but I've actually had a lot to do at Rensselaer, and I've also remained involved in a number of things on the outside. I was actually president of the AAAS, for instance.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

I've done some things for President Obama. I was a member of PCAST.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

I was actually co-chair for two-and-a-half years, the last two-and-a-half years of the Obama administration, of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. And you could say, well, why would I do that rather than doing physics? Well, I actually do read physics, but I read science more broadly. I have a particular interest in biotechnology and the life sciences, and I read things in public policy and so forth. But I've also done these other things, as well as served on a number of corporate boards because, one, a key part of my job as president—well, there are two key parts. One is to open doors and to create opportunity, either through getting support for the university or creating opportunity for some of our outstanding faculty. And I've done that. Another key part is projecting the university. I was involved for a decade with the World Economic Forum and they had a USA Board and I was on that board, and I actually went to Davos for 10 years, and I was able to have some of our faculty come and present at Davos.

So everywhere I've gone, I've carried Rensselaer with me, both to have people have knowledge of it and its reputation with the open doors. Today we have the second most powerful supercomputer at a university in the United States, and we have something like the 27th most powerful in the world. And it's because of our partnership with IBM, and that partnership rests on two poles: One, up until this spring when I aged out, I was on the board of IBM. And the other is that we have—one of our trustees, John Kelly], is an alum, and he and I formed a great partnership. But, in order to be able to facilitate getting something as significant as—now we're on the third generation of having one of the most powerful computers in the world, of course, the CEO of IBM has to be on-board. But it's never benefitted me personally, other than what one gets as being on a board anyway, and they have to put it through all their legal reviews and blah, blah, blah. But to be able to bring that kind of technological underpinning, that computational ecosystem to the universities is important. And there are other things.

So that's how I've spent my time. It's really been about enhancing the university, both through the specifics of carrying out our strategic plans with the specifics of how one runs the university day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year, but also with these involvements in these other fora. And when I was on PCAST or I was on the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, I brought Rensselaer people into major studies that have been done, including one that I co-led on high-performance computing. So that's what I feel my responsibilities are. And would I have liked to have been doing some calculations? It's kind of a refuge. But, at the same time, I like getting things done for the university.

Zierler:

Do you harbor any long term hopes to return to physics if you had more time?

Jackson:

Oh, I don't know. I mean, I'll probably dabble around, but I'm not going to pretend that I'm going back to doing hard-core research.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

But I love physics. I always have. That's why I did it in the first place. And I did it for 15 years running, actually 18, if you count the time I was at Rutgers University. I've had the privilege of being a theoretical physicist and doing the work, but I've had the equal privilege of taking that knowledge, as well as the approach to problem solving, into a number of other arenas where I think I've made a difference in people's lives.

Zierler:

I want to ask a broad question about your advisory work for the Obama administration. President Obama, of course, is well known for his deep respect of science and of the opinion of scientists, and I wonder if you can talk a little about how his perspective on science may have influenced the bodies that you served on in his administration?

Jackson:

Well, President Obama took PCAST very seriously. In fact, we would meet with the President directly in the White House several times a year. And there was a whole process by how PCAST came up with its priorities. But, when we presented things, he listened. One of the things where I co-led an initiative with Eric Schmidt, the then-CEO of Google, was on advanced manufacturing, and the President took that to heart and created a national initiative on advanced manufacturing. And there are these National Manufacturing Innovation Institutes that exist even today, and it came out of that. But when we talked about nanoscience, talked about flu virology, about development of vaccines, talked about cybersecurity, and talked about climate change, he was always engaged, and he listened. But the most important thing a president does is invite the scientists into the tent and then listen to what they have to say. And then, in his case, act upon what we had to say, but in a practical way.

We were asked what were the things that the President could do as President without going through a legislative process, and what were the things that would require intersection and interaction with the Congress, because you had to take them down different pathways to try to get them done. And so he was—I enjoyed that. Very brilliant man and very respectful of us. Of course, we were respectful of him.

Zierler:

I should state, for the record, that President Obama was very, very respectful of you in particular. This is known.

Jackson:

Well, I think it was a mutual respect. I felt it was a great honor to be able to do what I did for him and his administration, both with PCAST and with PIAB, the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. And when I became a member of PCAST, there was a President's Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee embedded in it, and he asked me to co-chair that. So it was a unique opportunity given that I wasn't working full time in the government; I was still president of Rensselaer. But that work tied directly to what a place like RPI is about. I enjoyed it a great deal, both intellectually as well as what we were trying to get done.

Zierler:

And what do you see as your key contributions and achievements, both with PCAST and PIAB?

Jackson:

Well, with PCAST, I was involved in a number of studies but, as I said, I basically co-led the one on advanced manufacturing, and that led to a whole national program that still exists. So I would say that would be number one on the list. And then, with the PIAB, my focus was on how we use science and technology more, and data analytics, in a broader way within the work that the intelligence agencies do. And that is happening. I would say those are two contributions.

Zierler:

I want to ask generally, to state the obvious, the United States changed greatly with the switch in administrations to the Trump administration. How have you navigated all of those differences, the differences in terms of the relationship between government and science, the relationship between views on higher education, where we are as a country with race relations? How have you as president of RPI navigated this very different environment that we've been in since 2016?

Jackson:

As president of the university, one certainly has and has the right to one's own perspectives and political opinions, but as one who leads an organization where people's lives and livelihood and their education and life outcomes all depend upon that institution, then one has to lead in a different way. I don't personally get caught up in the maelstrom of political statements and that kind of thing. Having said that, it is important as a leader to articulate a values statement and perspective for the institution and more broadly, and I've done that relative to what Rensselaer is and what it should aspire to be, and what that means for us as a community, and you'll see that in statements I've made and speeches I've done. I'll continue to do that where and when it is time and appropriate, and I've done that even relative to what has happened and did happen with respect to George Floyd's death in Minnesota and the implications of it, and what it means for the university. Also we were honored and privileged to give an honorary degree some years ago to Congressman John Lewis.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

Normally, I don't necessarily make statements based on the demise of any politician, but in John Lewis's case, I felt it was important to do. And not just to talk about the arc of his life, but to talk about what it meant.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And so I will do that. So that is to articulate what I call a principled values position. But having said that, as a university president, my job is to safely navigate the university through the realities of COVID and how we deal with issues that relate to things like immigration policy, how we relate to support or non-support for research. And we've taken positions on that as a university.

We had worked through a scheme to be able to, if this had stayed in place, that restriction, to how we would handle it in order to have our international students who are here not be caught up and have to "leave the country" or be deported. And so, even within the context of thinning out the university, part of which involves not having our sophomore class here in the fall and having them online, we have worked out an approach with our international sophomores to make sure that we could satisfy—get through the eye of that needle. One has to not just take positions; one has to take action relative to how one positions the university. And that's really what I do. And then, while I may have my own perspectives about any number of things, I am circumspect about—not afraid—but circumspect about what I say and how I say it, because it's not just about me.

Zierler:

Right.

Jackson:

It's about the university and the people in it and of it.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, we're a month away from #ShutDownSTEM. I felt very honored to be a part of it and to witness that day, and I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how you have been well positioned to contribute positively and productively to increasing inclusivity and diversity among underrepresented groups in the sciences over the course of your tenure as president of RPI?

Jackson:

Well, I think a couple of different things. One, we have been fairly assiduous in recruiting underrepresented minorities, particularly in the student body and as much as we can on the faculty. And on the faculty, we're beginning to see some results. But with the students in particular, we have created a number of programs. We have everything from an enhanced bridge program, a peer tutoring and leadership program, but importantly strengthening the financial aid that we're able to provide to underserved groups that enabled them to not have financial constraints to come and finish the university. We've created a Garnet Baltimore Scholars program that both has financial support built into it of the type I've talked about, but also particular academic and counseling support as needed.

On a separate line, we've made it clear that, as a university, we will not tolerate harassment, intimidation, discrimination of any kind, whether it's against underrepresented groups, religious groups, those with different gender identities, or women, and we are really firm on that. It's not something that I or we spend time preaching about, but we take action and there is consequence if people violate those things. I'm not the type to spend the time preaching about what I'm going to do; it's how does the university run relative to what we say our values are. And, as we say, we don't play when it comes to that. And you can talk to Richie, you can talk to other people, and, if anything, some people probably think I'm pretty tough in that regard.

Zierler:

Now, of course, one of the goals of #ShutDownSTEM is that it shouldn't just be a day on the calendar, right?

Jackson:

Yes.

Zierler:

That it's a catalyst for an ongoing conversation, and ongoing effort to increase diversity and inclusivity.

Jackson:

Right.

Zierler:

What's the work that needs to be done? And I wonder if you can talk—

Jackson:

Well, let me tell you what we're doing. First of all, when that day came, which came up on us like that, we did not shut down our classes, but I did ask on that day that every vice president convert every meeting they had to a discussion about what the issues were. Number two, I said that we needed to change that one-day stance into a university-wide conversation that we will launch this fall about what the university is and what it must do relative to STEM, beyond what we have been doing. But it's also going to be linked to a campus climate survey that we've already designed and that we will do. I actually have a task group that is going to take the results of that campus climate survey and translate it into what we have to do through our different parts of the organization. And the third, we actually have had, for a while now, a score card having to do with diversity and inclusion. Every leader has grades against that scorecard, and that actually does play into their compensation. So that's where we are.

And so I think, to answer your question, you can't talk a good game and you can't just do symbolic things. You've got to work to embed those values into what happens at an institution every day and every year. Those are the harder things to do, and they take time. And some of them can create real resentment. So one also has to spend a lot of time communicating. Now, I've spent a lot of time at the university during my tenure elevating and working to elevate the whole university and working on behalf of everyone in it. But I've said, and this has been increasingly my focus, if I open the door for you, you've got to open the door for somebody else. So the university is much more diverse today relative to women, to international faculty and students, to different religious groups. We're not where we want to be on underrepresented and underserved communities, and so we have to do something about it.

And that's why we've had the Garnet Baltimore Scholars program. That's why we've done things with financial aid. That's why we have put an onus and a scorecard on our deans relative to the hiring of underrepresented faculty. And then, we enforce what we say about behaviors. I don't give a lot of interviews about it because I've always been one to say, let my work speak for it, that's number one; it's just my personality. But the other is sometimes you have to make noise, and that's what #ShutDownSTEM was about. But sometimes you then have to take that moment and do other things to keep going. It's easy for me to become a target as an African American woman leading a major research university and becoming that target gets so bollixed up in that, that I cannot do and put into place these foundational elements that have to stand the test of time.

I also have to make sure I bring my board along with me because they are the ultimate overseers and stewards of the university. And if I do that, then the longevity can outlive me, be longer than I am. That is what I did and tried to do when I was NRC chairman, and that's how I try to live my leadership here. And that's not something that's always obvious to people, but that's what my goal is.

Zierler:

I want to insert some historical perspective into this discussion. When we last spoke, you shared with me the unbelievably powerful and difficult to hear story about the way that your mother would prepare when you would go on family trips on a long drive because your family couldn't stop at rest stops. And so, in one way, that seems to me like that's a very long time ago in terms of where we are as a society, and yet the stories that you shared with me about difficulties that you experienced at MIT, I wonder if an African American woman pursuing her PhD in physics today, how far off, how far ago in history those stories might feel? And I wonder if you can reflect on that in terms of the kinds of things you're hearing from up-and-coming scientists of underrepresented groups, how they're feeling and how that might have informed how something like #ShutDownSTEM could've come together so quickly?

Jackson:

Well, I think there have been continuing undercurrents that, unfortunately, have persisted over decades in terms of underrepresentation of underrepresented groups in STEM. And I think, not unlike underrepresented minorities or underserved communities across the country, that folks can tell you stories about how they've been treated or how seriously they've been taken or not that are not unlike what I might've told you about. And, to an extent, some of those kinds of things seem to be resurfacing more. To have them still be extant 50 years later, of some of them being resurgent, is something that I think worries a lot of us. On the other hand, we have the first head of student government at MIT who's an African American woman. We have a woman who is the head of the chemical engineering department at MIT and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. We have the dean of one of the schools at MIT as an African American. I probably have one of the most diverse cabinets in the United States, but you're seeing many more African American presidents of universities. It seems to be quite a wave right now, not all of them in STEM, but they're here. President Obama used to say that the arc of history bends toward justice, but that bend can have fits and starts, and right now we're in a fit.

Zierler:

Yeah. [laugh]

Jackson:

So we have to keep pushing. I'm concerned, but I'm not a person who is going to just sit and rub the worry beads. I'm going to work in my way. Here's an example, but it's going back. You may think it's a stretch. I was chairman of the NRC and I went to South Africa, and a lot of the people I initially spent time with were Afrikaners who clearly were all part of the apartheid government.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

But they had all the knowledge about the nuclear plants. And I would say there was a little bit of underlying—not a little bit, there was underlying tension, although everything was correct. But was I going to go in there as NRC chair and start preaching to them and screaming and hollering because they had oppressed black people? No. If the ANC government, the Nelson Mandela government, was going to be in charge, then I was going to help them be able to do what they had to do and help them know what they had to know to run their government, and that's what I did. And that's who I am. I'm an enabler. OK. I'm not a civil rights leader, I'm an enabler.

And I do think that, with a number of the young people today, they're impatient, and that's a good thing. If you look around in physics, in STEM more broadly, there's a severe underrepresentation. And so, of course, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and other things going on, there's a lot of self-reflection and reflection in the given arena that one operates in, and folks are going to revisit and look at and reflect upon what's really happening where they are. And they'll express what they feel needs to be done. I did it myself years ago. I was a cofounder of the Black Student Union at MIT. You act in the moment. And until Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I had been a quiet physics student at MIT. But then, when that happened, I felt I had to do something differently. I walk a path that is an interesting one because I lead an institution that's overwhelming not minority, but in leading it I both have to try to change it, even as I have a responsibility to take care of everybody in it, and that's what I do.

Zierler:

On the question of taking care of everybody, you alluded to it before a little earlier, I want to ask you a broader question about where we are as a society with regard to coronavirus.

Jackson:

[laugh] Yes.

Zierler:

The last time we spoke, maybe it's the naïve optimist in me, but it is appalling where we are now relative to where we were only a short few weeks ago when we initially spoke. Of course, there's multiple levels of crises that are going on here, and one of them, of course, is the crisis of the gulf between scientists communicating information in the clearest and most apolitical way possible and the public receiving that information and doing with it what they need to do, right? I wonder if you can talk a little bit about—and, in particular, with regard to your work serving on the task force with Governor Cuomo on the coronavirus, what are some of the most positive and productive ways forward to repair that gulf so that when scientists issue—not policy, because that's not their job, but when they talk about what the science says in terms of what needs to happen, what are the ways that we can learn from this epic failure and tragedy as a nation and move beyond where we are to best prepare ourselves for whatever the next calamity is in the way that scientific issues affect our country on a national basis?

Jackson:

So I would like you to maybe try to go back and extract three things from things I've talked about before. Number one, one has to understand and be able to speak to how science, technology, and public policy come together.

Zierler:

Right.

Jackson:

And how things are done in the public political or public policy realm, and that assumes some level of reasonableness on the part. Then you have to understand what the levers are, where the levers of power are and how you can have at least a partial hand on that. You have to understand how politicians think, how policymakers think, but also how the process works. And you've got to decide two things: One, what is doable at the given moment. It may not be the whole thing, but you have to decide what's doable. The second is you have to, as a friend of mine likes to say, decide what hill you're willing to die on, which is what is and where is the area where you want to take your strongest stance and risk—whether it's your position, your institution, or yourself. And for each of us that's a different place, but those are key things if one is in a certain position. The second is that one has to have a plan, and it has to be a real plan, and it has to be as anticipatory as it can be, but it has to be willing to have contingencies, to be able to have contingencies built into it. Because, as one of my cabinet members likes to say, if you fail to plan you plan to fail, and I agree with that.

The third is—and I don't know how to fix this one, David, exactly—you asked me an interesting question about did I want to go back to doing theoretical physics. We're missing that bridge between the experts and those who do the things that govern how most of us live, whether it's in the economic sphere, in the legal sphere, in the political sphere. I learned early on as NRC chairman, even though I was dealing in a very technical area and I'm dealing with these people around the world who headed atomic energy commissions and ministers of energy and all that kind of thing, but if I didn't understand the political frame or the economic frame that they came from, I couldn’t communicate. I also had to know a little bit about the cultural frame they came from. You need people who can do that bridging. I believe I've been successful because I darn sure know physics and nuclear physics. I could go back to doing calculations today and probably do some nice things, but that's not how I've chosen to spend this portion of my life and my career. I think I've been able to get things done because I understand the need for that bridge, and I try to understand the people who are in the different spaces along that. However, this is a very difficult period. This pandemic has really revealed fault lines in our society.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And when something as simple as wearing a mask can become a political issue, then there's something really deeply rooted here that we have to be worried about. And the sad part about it is that so many people seem to have to learn the hard way.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Jackson:

I've tried to say, well, let me look over here and see what's happened over here, and how do I keep it from coming over here? But if I dismiss what's happened over there, that they're somehow different than I am, whether it's a different political stripe, racial stripe, ethnic stripe, religious stripe, then I'm destined to let the thing come to me. Sometimes I think, unfortunately, people have to live it through. But I'll ask you a question. You know that there have been a lot of people of color and primarily on the lower part of the socioeconomic spectrum, but not exclusively, and a lot of elderly people who happen not to be people of color, by and large. Is that the price we're willing to pay as a society, to have those people die?

Zierler:

Well, the answer obviously should be no, but the way that it's playing out in reality and the way that certain public officials have said so explicitly, the answer seems to be yes. And I don't recognize that country, to be perfectly honest with you. It doesn't make sense to me that these are conversations that people are having, this is the cost/benefit analysis that people are accepting. So that's the best way I can answer that.

Jackson:

I was glad to hear that you say that you were part of the STEM—let's take the pause. Because the problem is that the underrepresented folks can't fight the battle alone.

Zierler:

Right. Nor should they have to.

Jackson:

Because, you know, we're all in it together, and today it can be about race, tomorrow it can be about religion, the next day it can be about gender choice, and the next day it can be about gender, the next day it can be about physical infirmity, the next day it can be about mental health, and the next day it can just be about economic disadvantage more broadly. But, you know, we all make up the world and if we don't recognize that and we don't all come together, then what is this great American experiment?

Zierler:

Mm-hmm. Dr. Jackson, for the last part of our talk, I want to ask you a few broadly retrospective questions—

Jackson:

Sure.

Zierler:

—and I'll start with a happier one, since we should lighten it up a little bit, I think.

Jackson:

Yes, right. You've been asking me some pretty heavy questions here.

Zierler:

[laugh] We obviously don't have time to talk about all of the awards and recognitions that you've received over the course of your career, but I do want to ask: In your capacity as a woman, as an African American, as a scientist, are there any awards or recognitions that have been bestowed upon you that stand out among the others as being most personally or professionally meaningful to you?

Jackson:

Yes. The National Medal of Science. What can I say?

Zierler:

Well, please, tell me why.

Jackson:

Well, it is the highest honor one can get in this country for overall achievements in science and engineering, to be awarded by the President of the United States, especially if that president is President Barack Obama; it's a signal point in my career and in my life. And to have my sisters and my son and husband there with me, some of my best friends and colleagues who've been with me through the years, to have them be able to be part of that was very important. Second was less an award than a major bend in the road in my life, and that's when I became chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a very high-level presidential appointment. And to have my parents there, who had passed away by the time I got the National Medal of Science, but for them to be there when I was sworn in by Vice President Al Gore. And, again, having my husband and son there, and my sisters and their children. This kind of coming together of professional recognition and achievement with my family being part of it and my friends, that's what's most meaningful to me.

Zierler:

Were you ever able to talk with your parents about—not that they would be surprised at you, specifically, and what you were able to achieve, but did they ever express surprise that society had gotten to a point where somebody from your background was able to accomplish what you did?

Jackson:

No. No, not really. And that may sound unusual, but my parents, I believe, lived their lives within the limitations that they had to live, being born over 100 years ago now, to position their children to achieve as much as they could, and to step through what I call their own windows in time when they opened. My parents tended to quietly raise us in a certain way, and they were brilliant, my father in the mathematical and technical, mechanical ways, and my mother in the language arts and in the literary ways. I always felt that if my father came along when I did, he would've been an engineer. And my mother was a teacher, but if she had come along when I did, she may well have been an English professor or something like that. As it was, she was a social worker, but she was very much a reader and writer. But they gave that to us, my siblings and me, and so that was their gift. And then, my mother and father recognized, and I was recognized early as having a certain talent. They always supported that, and they fought if anybody tried to inhibit my being able to realize and build on that talent. They were very proud of me and proud of all of us, but they were proud of me, and they expressed that, but not surprised per se.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And hoped that this meant that there would be greater opportunities, not just for me but that we had, as a race in this country, moved to a point where these sorts of opportunities were possible.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, all of your achievements and successes post-1995—it might feel like a long time ago but, of course, they rest on your significant achievements in physics. And so I wonder if you can reflect on, what do you see as your primary contributions to physics itself? Not the policy, not the framework, not the administration, but just as a physicist working at a time when you were on a career trajectory like a Mary K., right? To pause that in that moment looking back, what do you see as your most significant achievements as a physicist?

Jackson:

They were—I wouldn't call them discoveries, because I was a theoretical physicist, but they were discoveries and predictions that I made about the properties of unique two-dimensional systems. The focus on polaronic effects in layered materials starting with electrons on the surface of liquid helium films, which you could almost call it a kind of model system for what would, in semiconductors, be electron phonon interactions. So whole set of contributions in the electronic and optical properties of layered systems, two-dimensional and quasi-two-dimensional systems. There are a whole series of things that I did there, beginning with the electrons on liquid helium films all the way to work on diluted magnetic semiconductors. And, along the way, certain predictions and work in zone folding in germanium-silicon strained layer super lattices. That body of work I would say—and it was the work on the two-dimensional polaronic systems that led to my being elected a fellow of the American Physical Society.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And if you ask me, other than the National Medal of Science, what recognition mattered so much to me in the sciences, it was when I was first elected a fellow of the American Physical Society, because that was my first recognition as a physicist, and it was specifically about the work that I did on these two-dimensional polaronic systems. And so that was pretty big, and it played off of work that I was trained to do in particle physics, but I actually switched into condensed matter physics. And I was able to take work that I was doing in looking at the topological properties of solutions to nonlinear field theories into how topology might play a role in the electronic and optical properties of condensed matter systems. In fact, the work I did on electrons on the surface of liquid helium films specifically involved a kind of topological structure that appeared that affected the mobility of these electrons. And so that was kind of—I look at them as kind of bookends in my career, the election as a fellow of the American Physical society, which was a big deal, because that's the pure physics, and then my being awarded the National Medal of Science.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

Now, along the way, I was elected to the National Academy of Engineering because of how work I had done related to science and technology. And, of course, I was elected a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, so those are big deals. But the bookends, when you look at it, are being elected an APS fellow and being awarded the National Medal of Science. Now, I've actually gotten some other awards from the APS. I got the Burton Forum Award. I got an award from the American Association of Physics Teachers and so forth. I've been very proud of those. But the real bookends are those that I mentioned, being elected an APS fellow and being awarded the National Medal of Science. And so it's unique.

Zierler:

I can't help but point out, just an observation, when you talk about science, just the pure science, there's a twinkle in your eye and a happiness that comes across your face.

Jackson:

[laugh]

Zierler:

I want to ask a very broad question.

Jackson:

Sure.

Zierler:

What comes more naturally to you—I mean, in all of your subsequent work, it's political in the sense that political broadly defined is, either at the NRC or at Rensselaer, that the work is about dealing with people, right? But, as a theoretical physicist, you could be dealing in the world of abstraction and particles, right?

Jackson:

Yes.

Zierler:

Which one is more difficult to you, the world of people or the world of particles in terms of understanding and in terms of establishing a pathway to success?

Jackson:

Well, I would say that dealing with particles, dealing with theoretical physics is mentally the more challenging one, but one that I relish.

Zierler:

Yes.

Jackson:

But the world of people is the more psychologically challenging.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

And one, in the world of particles, the world of condensed systems, it's physically and mathematically complicated, but nothing is more complicated than people, right?

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

And that, coupled with the fact that, for all that I have done and the recognitions that I've gotten and the positions I've held, I'm actually a fairly reticent person. I'm not a naturally gregarious person, and I tend to be fairly succinct when I have something to say. And I'm not one who will naturally like to be the life of the party and so forth, so I'm more a physicist than not. And I enjoy that. Now, here's an interesting factor. So we've all been locked up here for a while. I go out every now and then and walk around the grounds of the president's house. That's what I call my work release program.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Jackson:

[laugh] And I have meetings—which I'm about to have shortly—with my cabinet, sometimes multiple times a week, especially when we were in the hottest throes of developing our start-up plan, and then when we were shutting down, but every day it's something. And I enjoy that. I enjoy my cabinet. I enjoy what we do. I enjoy the planning. And I am blessed with a really great group. Having said that, let's see, we kind of shut down around March the 9th or 10th. So here we are, almost four-and-a-half months later, and I have a stationary bike and, like I said, I do go walk around here and we do have a place in the mountains, but I'm OK. [laugh] I don't have to go out to a bar. I don't have to go out to a restaurant. I'm happy to read. I'm happy to think about these challenges and how we're going to work through them. And so, in a way, it's been surprising how easy it's been to be here.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

No one psychologically likes the idea of being locked in, but, at the same time, maybe it's because I've traveled a lot, too, an awful lot, and I've been on planes a lot of my life. And it's been OK. I didn't mind traveling. I always liked being in different places. But I'm OK not doing that, too. So I think it relates to a natural ability or natural tendency to be OK keeping my own counsel and not being an inherently gregarious person. I'm pretty purpose driven when I'm interacting with people, other than my family and my friends. But I wouldn't want to have this continue much longer, [laugh] but I've been surprised. Besides which, I have my husband and he's my best friend, and so we have just gotten along enormously well. It's amazing. We kind of rediscovered each other.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, for my last question, I want to ask you a broad, forward-looking question, and it's simply this: Both in terms of what you hope to continue accomplishing at RPI, what you hope to continue accomplishing in your work in an advisory capacity, and in your work as an engaged citizen and as an educator, what are the most important things in a world of finite time and resource that are most important to you in terms of what you want to accomplish professionally and personally?

Jackson:

Well, the first thing, the basic thing I want to do, and it is my responsibility to do, is to guide Rensselaer through this COVID pandemic and hopefully come out the other side, but the other side being a little bit undefined at the moment. But I do have hopefulness about the advent of a vaccine that allows us to kind of slowly come out of this. But to be able to lead Rensselaer through that, that is my basic focus at the moment. The second is that I am interested in the environment. I actually recently was elected to the board of the Nature Conservancy, the global board, and I think that's work that I intend to and would like to continue even well beyond my tenure here at Rensselaer. And then, the third is, if I have another opportunity, not necessarily in a full-time way, but to do something in the public service, public policy arena, I would be happy to do that in an advisory capacity or some such. And then, depending on where my husband and I ultimately end up, to do something in our local community.

So those four things, to see Rensselaer through the COVID pandemic, to do work in the environmental sphere, bringing the kind of knowledge I've garnered both as a scientist but through the different positions I've had, including within the nuclear area, but others with things like what I've described here that we're doing, and with the work on the Nature Conservancy. And then, the public policy arena, while helping out in my local community. Those are the things that will drive me going forward. Now, along the way, I'll probably be starting to secretly read the Phys Rev Letters and the Physical Review—in all honesty, I will. And I've always found reading science much more interesting that science fiction.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

Right? I do like reading Science Magazine, reading science articles. I've spent more time reading ones about the biology of COVID than anything else in recent times. I have a gentleman who's my special advisor on strategic initiatives who used to be vice president for research, but he wanted to get back to his research, and he's been doing a lot of work with Mount Sinai on COVID treatment protocols. I call him my resident virologist. I bother him every day about something having to do with understanding COVID and about these different vaccine platforms. I'm hopeful about the development of a vaccine, but I come at it differently than what you hear the media heads talking. People say things like, how long will the immunity last if you get COVID? And it would be nice to think you might have some lifetime immunity, like if you get measles or something, or that you have a vaccine that confers it. But it doesn't bother me if we have a vaccine that you have to go back every six months to get another shot. Because the more important thing is to be able to get this thing under control.

Zierler:

Mm-hmm.

Jackson:

I think there are mitigating things that we've learned that we can do with the mask wearing, with the social distancing, with better ventilation, and that people talk about washing your hands. Because viral load is probably a big key, as well as any other exacerbating factors, in terms of people getting sick. But that's not going to totally tamp things down. And not everybody is going to be able to live with those sorts of stringencies. So a vaccine is important, but this comes to your point about the public and science, and science and public policy. The idea that the only thing that's worth having is something that confers lifetime and instant immunity is a kind of impatience we have, I think, as a society, and a desire to be free. But what we've got to think about is that there are two important reasons to have these vaccine initiatives work. One, of course, is the immediate one, of getting COVID-19 under control and infecting and killing fewer people. And, as I said, whether that comes with a once a year, a once every two years, or a lifetime, or every six months, or boosters every six months, the important thing is to get it under control. So that's the big reason right in front of our faces for pushing hard on the vaccines.

But the other piece goes back to the intersecting vulnerabilities with cascading consequences. This isn’t the last virus we're going to see, and there's a lot that people learn, and this is why the fundamental science has to be supported—about viruses, how they affect and attack the body, what therapeutic interventions really matter and can exist, but importantly, the development of platforms, vaccine platforms, that give us adaptability to viruses in a certain class. So, like the Moderna—and I don't know how well it will work—but if one can develop a messenger RNA platform that then allows one to tune what the vaccine can be to a different coronavirus or type of virus, that's the breakthrough. And we're going to need that, so we're going to need to be able to get our public health approach together, deal with healthcare and health disparities in ways that we—that this pandemic is ripping the blanket off. We have to be able to develop platform approaches to vaccinology, which is what PCAST was focused on, in order to deal with the next one coming down the line. Because we do have zoonotic diseases, and there will be another one that jumps, and another one that jumps, and so we better keep learning about the fundamental biology undergirding these viruses and what kind of vaccinology platforms are important. And that's why I'm hopeful today about a COVID or coronavirus vaccine, but we've got to keep investing for tomorrow.

That's the hardest message to get across to the public, and that's what somebody who can be a bridge speaker really needs to do. That's what I tried to do in the nuclear arena when I was the NRC chairman. And when I speak today, I try to be careful about what I know and don't know. But someone has to be able to talk about that translation of what may appear to be very esoteric kinds of things. You can't expect the scientists always—the working scientists to be the one to do it. We need the working scientists to—if that's what their motivation is, what their personalities are about, let them do that. But there are some of them who will branch and can have a real impact in government and even the business arena if they're listened to. And that's what I'm really worried about.

Zierler:

Dr. Jackson, I know how busy you are, I know how significant all of your responsibilities are, so I just want to tell you that I'm deeply grateful and honored that you've spent all of this time with me. I hope it's been an enjoyable and meaningful experience for you. And, as a historian, I just want to say that your willingness to tell these stories in your own words, it's hard to overstate how important this is for the historical record. All of the different kinds of people with all of the different interests that they have, the value that they will get from this record, it's impossible to overstate. So really, from the bottom of my heart, I'm so happy and grateful that you were able to do this, so thank you very much.

Jackson:

Well, thank you. I've enjoyed talking with you, and hopefully we can talk again one day.

Zierler:

I look forward to it.

[End]