The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson – MIT Technology Review

She’s worked as a theoretical physicist at Bell Laboratories and chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She cochaired President Obama’s President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and served on the boards of IBM and FedEx. And since 1999, she’s been president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. … She also has a magnificent ability to understand organizations and how to be effective within them … She has always been the cool head in the group.”

Jackson stayed at MIT for doctoral work, partly because she recognized the power of an MIT doctorate, and partly because she “wasn’t going to give people the satisfaction of getting me to walk away.”

I think I may have a new role model. 🙂

So during her first semester of graduate school, in the fall of 1968, Jackson traveled around the Midwest as part of a national effort do something MIT had never done before: recruit minority students. A year later, 57 African-American freshmen enrolled, up from three to five per year in previous years. To help those students succeed, Jackson helped create and then taught in a summer program called Project Interphase, designed to provide academic support for incoming minority freshmen and acclimate them to MIT. “I wasn’t the best student in her class,” says Gates, who had attended a segregated high school in Orlando, Florida, and was the first in his family to go to college. “But she was an amazing instructor and inspiration. She had standards of rigor and difficult physics problems the likes of which I had never seen.” In nearly five decades, more than 2,000 students have taken part in the program, now called Interphase EDGE.

Wow, she’s left an amazing legacy. I know first-hand how difficult it is to have a new student organization last beyond a few years.

“It’s important to serve,” Jackson says. “It does take a lot of time. But I don’t play golf. And I have the ability to learn fast.”

Instead, she focuses on pragmatic responses to serious problems. For example, even for those who deny humans’ role in climate change, the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events “stares you in the face,” she says. “You can see the effects in housing, in the stability of roads.” So she encourages people to help look for ways to address those effects “even if you don’t believe that at the front end is climate change.” (Of course, she also acknowledges that building practices only go so far, and scientists and public policy experts need to keep talking about the root causes of climate change.)

Apparently, there’s a lot of backlash on this article (see the comments). It’s a pretty good reflection of what women and minorities in STEM still need to deal with (lose-lose). Here is one encouraging response:

I am a former alum of RPI, and I a bit wary of some of the complaints of my fellow alumni, because I am a member of our alumni forum (on LinkedIn) and some of the comments there are very disparaging and question her qualifications (of a PhD from MIT for that matter). I would encourage my fellow alumni to also show a modicum of integrity by rebuking the deeply prejudicial comments that are in our alumni forum on LinkedIn. No one will trust your complaints, when the motivation behind those comments is not clear (–in some cases they are in the clear–). There are real issues such high cost of tuition, and independence of the student run Union. It is hard to focus on pertinent issues and at the same time ignore the malice of some alumni.

Dr. Jackson is widely reported to have a take-no-prisoners leadership style, but so did Margaret Thatcher (who had no shortage of critics). Are strong and forceful women leaders in a lose-lose situation? I do not know. In an era of pay disparity, some complain about how highly she is paid, yet some NCAA D-1 Football coaches make million dollar salaries. What is the balance?

Dr. Jackson has had a very distinguished career as a scientist. She has led some impressive infrastructure improvements at RPI and the school is very different than what it looked like in the late 80s and early 90s. I think she can be criticized, but our alumni community should also scrutinize itself.

via The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson – MIT Technology Review.

Q&A: A powerful look at the future of AI, from its epicenter at Carnegie Mellon – TechRepublic

This was a great interview with Andrew Moore, Dean of CMU’s School of CS.

What’s the most pressing area of research in robotics?

We have a dirty secret. One of the reasons we’re having this renaissance in AI in the last few years is that we’ve become very good at computer vision. We’ve become very good at learning, so that robots no longer need to be programmed for every possible eventuality—they just adapt to their environment. That’s why you’re seeing this big burst in robotics, in car industries and the logistics industries and retail and medicine and so forth. But we have not had the same success in grasping and manipulation. The claw of the hand of the robot being dextrous, quickly moving around and picking things up without breaking them. That’s where we’re devoting a huge amount of effort. Roboticists around the world are focusing on that. Until then, robots will be deployed in areas where they’re not controlling manipulation, but they’re controlling machines and detecting problems, moving large bulky objects around. We’ve given ourselves a 5-year moonshot project. We want to put a robot arm on 100,000 powered wheelchairs in the US. The goal is that the people on those wheelchairs who have high spinal cord injuries or degenerative diseases, can’t use their own arms, look at an object, hold their focus on it, and the robot arm will reach to pick it up and place it where the user looks or indicates. If we can get this problem solved—we think there’s a 50/50 chance to do it in five years—it will be an extremely good thing for all the people who need this help. It’s a big test to see if we’ve broken the barriers of manipulation. This is exactly what we did about 15 years ago with self-driving car technology. That one panned out.

Are schools meeting the demands?

There’s been a lot of progress, and I’m excited by the new inclusion of CS in the New York curriculum. In Queensland, Australia, robotics is becoming an actual part of the required curriculum for kids. The countries that really push the math and statistics behind AI are the ones that will prosper in the long run.

How is CMU dealing with recruiting more women into tech?

We’re really passionate about this. We’re the first university to have broken through the 40% barrier

Is the Field of Artificial Intelligence Sexist? –

This article on diversity in AI (or STEM in general) is preaching to the choir here, but I’d like to see more studies / numbers backing up some of the comments.

“There’s a difference between agentic goals, which have to do with your personal goals and your desire to be intellectually challenged, and communal goals, which involve working with other people and solving problems.”

In general, many women are driven by the desire to do work that benefits their communities, desJardins says. Men tend to be more interested in questions about algorithms and mathematical properties. Since men have come to dominate AI, she says, “research has become very narrowly focused on solving technical problems and not on the big questions.”

To close the diversity gap, schools need to emphasize the humanistic applications of artificial intelligence.

via Is the Field of Artificial Intelligence Sexist? –

Peculiar Benefits – The

You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You don’t need to diminish your privilege or your accomplishments because of that privilege. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about. They might endure situations you can never know anything about. You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good–to try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. While you don’t have to do anything with your privilege, perhaps it should be an imperative of privilege to share the benefits of that privilege rather than hoard your good fortune. We’ve seen what the hoarding of privilege has done and the results are shameful.

via Peculiar Benefits – The

HT Laura Royden

Well-said. (discussion of privilege.)

Real Numbers: Asian Women in STEM Careers: An Invisible Minority in a Double Bind | Issues in Science and Technology

Percentage of doctoral scientists and engineers employed in universities and 4-year colleges (S&E occupations) who are tenured, by race/ethnicity and gender (2008)

Percentage of scientists and engineers employed in government who are managers, by race/ethnicity and sex (2006)

Percentage of scientists and engineers employed in business or industry who are S&E managers, by race/ethnicity and gender (2006)

Percentage of scientists and engineers doctorate degree holders employed in business or industry who are S&E managers, by race/ethnicity and sex (2006)


The advancement of Asian female scientists and engineers in STEM careers lags behind not only men but also white women and women of other underrepresented groups. Very small numbers of Asian women scientists and engineers are advancing to become full professors or deans or university presidents in academia, to serve on corporate board of trustees or become managers in industry, or to reach managerial positions in government. Instead, in academia 80% of this population can be found in non-faculty positions, such as postdocs, researchers, and lab assistants, or nontenured faculty positions, and 95% employed in industry and over 70% employed in government are in nonmanagerial positions. In earning power they lag behind their male counterparts as well as behind women of other races/ethnicities in STEM careers.

via Real Numbers: Asian Women in STEM Careers: An Invisible Minority in a Double Bind | Issues in Science and Technology.

Gender disparity in EECS persists |

only 12.4 percent of students in the EECS major at UC Berkeley are female

via Gender disparity in EECS persists |

Well-made clip on gender diversity in EECS at Berkeley.

Somewhat related, it is comforting to learn that gender is not a huge factor in the report titled Ph.D. Student Attrition in the EECS Department at the University of California, Berkeley. The following interpretation is interesting but not fully backed with data.

A possible interpretation of this result … career choices must fit into a larger picture. For men, it is more acceptable to segregate the two. Seymour observed this same phenomenon in a study of undergraduates: “young men… are more willing to place career goals above considerations of personal satisfaction. By contrast, young women show a greater concern to make their education, their career goals, and their personal priorities, fit coherently together.” Another important concept is the idea of the science “mold.” If there are no role-models, no women faculty within the academic mold that appear to enjoy the life graduate student women aspire to achieve, women will seek a career option in which it is easier to integrate career and personal goals.