When Shirley Ann Jackson was in elementary school in the 1950s, she would prowl her family’s backyard, collecting bumblebees, yellow jackets and wasps. She would bottle them in mayonnaise jars and test which flowers they liked best and which species were the most aggressive. She dutifully recorded her observations in a notebook, discovering, for instance, that she could alter their daily rhythms by putting them under the dark porch in the middle of the day. The most important lesson she took away from these experiments was not about science but compassion. “Don’t imprison any living thing for very long,” she says in a mellow drawl that belies her reputation as a lightning-fast thinker and influential physicist. “I have never been a fan of dead insect collections.”

Jackson came of age during the civil-rights movement. She was valedictorian of her graduating class at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., in 1964 and went on to study particle and high-energy physics. In 1973 she became the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D.

At AT&T Bell Laboratories (now Bell Labs), Jackson studied materials for the semiconductor industry from 1976 to 1995. She also worked at other research institutions in the early 1970s, including Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., and CERN near Geneva. In 1995 President Bill Clinton appointed her chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Four years later she took the helm of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y.—making her the first female African-American president of a top-50 research university. Since then, RPI has raised more than $1 billion in philanthropic donations, set up new departments, such as the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, and attracted a Nobel laureate and members of the National Academies.

Jackson has strong views about the importance of science education and the underrepresentation of minorities in academia. Her inspiring life story has even been published as a children’s book. In a recent interview, Jackson spoke about how a “quiet crisis” in science training is threatening our nation’s energy security in the face of challenges such as global warming and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Excerpts follow.

Scientific American: Growing up in Washington, D.C., at a time when there was so much turmoil, how were you able to focus on science?
JACKSON: My parents believed very strongly in education and in helping each of their children pursue their interests. My father, who was in charge of motor vehicle operations for the U.S. Postal Service, would work with me on science projects, and he actually helped my sister and me design and build go-karts. He had a natural mechanical and mathematical capability even though he was not col­lege-­educated. My mother, meanwhile, taught her children to read early.

I also benefited from great teachers. Before desegregation, the teachers that I had were quite good and focused on nurturing talent, but afterward the school system brought in a unique group of African-American teachers. They thought it was a great experiment, so they wanted these special teachers to come in. I tested into an accelerated academic track and had relatively small classes with just seven to 10 students. So that, coupled with having more access to more resources and, frankly, more competition, helped us to grow and think more broadly about career options.

How did you make the leap from bees to physics?
To be honest, I didn’t think about physics per se until I was in college. As I went along from grade school to middle and high school, I got progressively more interested in mathematics and how it could help describe physical phenomena. I went off to college with math in mind, but then I took a physics course when I was a freshman at M.I.T. called PANIC, which stands for Physics: A New Introductory Course. I also had an inspiring professor named Tony French [who worked on the Manhattan Project], and I kind of loved quantum mechanics.

Is there a particular discovery you are most proud of?
In the late 1970s engineers wanted to create new semiconductor devices, and at Bell Labs we knew that the quantum physics of two-dimensional structures was going to govern their electrical behaviors. I created mathematical models of these systems, and I guess the work I am best known for is studying polarons on the surface of liquid-helium films. People refer to the polaron as a particle that digs its own grave. It can be an electron or any kind of charged particle that distorts the structure that it is moving through. This creates a feedback system, slowing, for instance, those same electrons, and I found that under certain conditions the conductivity of a material could quickly drop to zero. This phenomenon, later seen in experiments, is what got me elected as a fellow of the American Physical Society.

Your physics education came in handy as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the 1990s. Do you think the Fukushima disaster will affect the debate over nuclear power and energy policy?
It is a complex picture. Countries seem to be reexamining their nuclear programs in three ways: some, like Germany, are looking at whether they want to continue down the nuclear power path. Others, such as the U.S., are continuing to extend the license terms of nuclear plants but are having discussions about how to strengthen the safety of existing reactors and how to anticipate and mitigate the effects of natural disasters. Then there are those in developing economies and in ones that have not had nuclear programs that are continuing right on down the line of building new reactors. Iran, for instance, recently connected its reactor to its grid. I think Japan is going to continue its program even though there is some pressure to scale back. There will be a pause and then a continuation of nuclear power in most countries.

Are the challenges for the industry different today than when you were chairing the commission?
The overall performance of nuclear plants has improved over time. The designs of the newer, more evolutionary plants have anticipated certain kinds of accidents. Some of the things we did when I was chair of the NRC, including the promulgation of risk-informed, performance-based regulation, sharpened our focus on where the greatest safety problems are. But we are still faced with the Achilles’ heel of nuclear waste disposal at the back end of the fuel cycle.

What do you think the answer is for spent-fuel storage?
There are broader policy issues that society must address. One is whether to bury the fuel in a geologic repository, such as Yucca Mountain [in Nevada], within the matrix of other radionuclides, which some feel deters nuclear proliferation. Alternatively, there could be reprocessing of the spent fuel to extract plutonium and make mixed-oxide fuel. The point is that any discussion of nuclear power should be in the larger context of an overall energy security plan for the country.

What do you mean by “energy security plan”?
We tend to lurch from sector to sector. We talk about nuclear and what we should do with nuclear. We talk about oil and gas and who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. But if we don’t develop a comprehensive energy security plan, we’re going to be having these discussions until the cows come home.

In the end, energy security is about having adequate supplies of energy at rational prices across a spectrum of uses: transportation, residential and commercial uses.

Is this what you have called “intersecting vulnerabilities”?
It’s exactly what I call it. If we do not take account of intersecting vulnerabilities, we tend to lurch one way and then the other. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Fukushima disaster tell us there is vulnerability when we are look­ing at any given energy source. With Fukushima, the plants shut down the way they should have, but they needed water, and that requires the ability to pump water, and that requires electricity that doesn’t come from the reactor. The power outages that we have recently had here in the Northeast coming from Hurricane Irene tell us about the vulnerabilities in terms of our infrastructure, certainly for electricity transmission, if not for generation itself. These things tell us that we need a diversity of energy sources.

Do you see renewable energy as a significant part of that equation?
As we look to newer technologies, we also have to think about how we optimize what we have with less environmental impact. We have to think about environmental sustainability and conservation. A watt saved is de facto a watt generated. But we’d also better think about full life-cycle costs. If we want to have compact fluorescent lightbulbs, how are we going to dispose of the mercury in the bulbs in an environmentally sound way? If we are going to have electric cars, what infrastructure do we need to make that happen? There are no easy solutions, and we are addicted to easy solutions. If we commit to looking at the whole energy life cycle, it can help us make choices, particularly if we then play into the markets where there should be transparency of pricing and consistency of regulation.

In the end, what we seem to have lost focus of is this: if we’re going to have energy security, we’re going to have to innovate. I’ve never seen any innovation yet that just popped out of the air. It comes from people’s ideas. So if we don’t have the right talent, we’re not going to be able to meet our energy needs.

Is the U.S. losing its edge when it comes to investing in innovation?
Yes, we are underinvesting in people and in R&D in the energy sector and more generally. We can see that people are leaving science and engineering. We have a group of people who are beginning to retire, the number of retirements will continue to grow and we do not have students to replace them. Our performance on international tests and achievement in things like math and science are slipping. We see where other countries are generating more intellectual property or having their work cited frequently. You can pick your metric, but in combination you see a slippage. This is what I call the “quiet crisis.”

The biggest evidence in some ways is that other countries are investing more in the very areas that we are backing away from. And they are trying to emulate the model that has made us successful. A huge part of our GDP growth after World War II in America came from scientific discovery and technological innovation. It came out of government investment in infrastructure. Google’s entire business would not exist without government-funded R&D. They have armies of smart people writing algorithms, thinking about how to do ever better things in their space. But they are riding on top of an infrastructure—the Internet, GPS and integrated circuits—that was funded by the government.

The private sector also has to play a leadership role because it, too, needs to invest in research. And that is something that has dropped off in recent years quite a bit.

Which brings me to the three-legged stool: government, industry and aca­dem­ia all have a role in providing infrastructural, financial and human capital to produce the innovations we need.

Has the slow rate of growth of underrepresented minorities in science affected our competitiveness?
Regarding the issue of minorities being underrepresented, I see many factors. We have to begin with K–12 education. That affects all of us overall, but it obviously has disproportionately affected minorities. We need better math and science teachers. We need programs at the K–12 level to really get young people engaged early and give them the fundamental grounding and the preparation required. If they do not have that, then they do not have as many options further down the educational pipeline.

For those who become students in science and engineering, we need to support them financially and nurture and mentor them, whether they are women, minorities or majority males. If people see people who are like themselves as faculty or in significant positions in corporations, these things will help.

My message is that if we want innovation, we need the innovators. We have to tap the complete talent pool. Sometimes I think a mistake we make is this: because the problems are so serious, we want to separate out underrepresented minorities and women from the larger issues. They do need special attention, but I think there would be more urgency about it if people understood that women and minorities are key parts of the complete talent pool. We need to educate people for their career, for their life, and not just for their first job. We need to invite, excite and prepare young people. And teachers make a difference.