Educator Shirley Ann Jackson (Photo/

Educator Shirley Ann Jackson is the only African American among the nine individuals slated to receive National Medal of Science awards at a White House ceremony early this year.

The National Medal of Science was created in 1959 and is the nation’s highest honor for achievement and leadership in advancing the fields of chemistry, engineering, computing, mathematics, and the biological, behavioral/social, and physical sciences, according to the White House.

“Science and technology are fundamental to solving some of our Nation’s biggest challenges,” President Obama said in a statement. “The knowledge produced by these Americans today will carry our country’s legacy of innovation forward and continue to help countless others around the world. Their work is a testament to American ingenuity.”

Jackson is the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private research university in Troy, N.Y., that has a student body of more than 7,000, according to the school’s website. She is credited with creating a new education model for the school that makes learning more interdisciplinary and applies science and technology to the challenges facing the world today.

“Dr. Jackson epitomizes the greatness of American science by tackling the hard and important problems of society that science can and must address,” said Jonathan S. Dordick, vice president for research at Rensselaer. “She does this through intensity, dedication, and a vision that makes the complex seem solvable. She is a role model for science in our nation and her receipt of the National Medal of Science represents a well-deserved honor.”

Before taking the helm at RPI, Jackson served as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1995 to 1999. A theoretical physicist, Jackson earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, becoming the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in any discipline from MIT. Jackson’s early research career also included stints at Bell Labs and Rutgers University.

People from the academic, corporate and public service arenas praised Jackson for her contributions and said the medal is a well-deserved honor.

“Shirley Jackson’s contributions to science, to education, to business, and to society have been extraordinary,” Ginni Rometty, chairman, president and CEO of IBM, said in a statement. “At IBM, we have benefitted from her insight, wisdom, and pioneering spirit in so many dimensions. As the transformational leader of one of America’s great educational institutions, she is richly deserving of this signal honor.”

“Dr. Jackson was my first physics teacher at MIT in 1969,” Jackson’s former student, S. James Gates Jr., a professor at the University of Maryland, added. “She has been a ‘north star’ to many colleagues over the years as she modeled exceedingly well something she says: ‘Even smart people have to work very hard to accomplish something great.’ She is the epitome of this statement in so many diverse areas and deserves a hearty congratulations from all the communities she has touched.”