Chemist William Jackson Receives National Public Service Award

William Jackson
William Jackson

William Jackson, distinguished professor emeritus of chemistry in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science, will receive the National Science Board's (NSB) 2021 Public Service Award. 

NSB grants its Public Service Award to individuals and groups that have contributed substantially to increasing public understanding of science and engineering. Jackson is being recognized as both a leader in the field of chemistry and a mentor and advocate for increasing minority participation in science.  

Jackson has made critical scientific contributions to the field of laser chemistry by developing cutting-edge laser technology to study in the laboratory the atoms and the reactive free radicals that he and others observe with ground and satellite telescopes in astronomy. He has also had an exceptionally active career in mentorship through his publications, his service on committees for equal opportunity and his personal interactions with hundreds of chemists and chemical engineers. He was one of the founders of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) in 1973, which has helped to increase participation of minority students in the sciences. 

His determination and passion for both science and the education of more minorities to pursue degrees in science has had a marked impact on the field of chemistry, said Maureen Condic, chair of the 2020 NSB Honorary Awards Subcommittee. Many African Americans, Latinos and women who are making important contributions to government, industry and academia do so because of Jackson’s sustaining vision. Three generations of minority scientific professionals and students are indebted to the efforts of this man.  

Inspiring a diverse community

Jackson grew up in a segregated society in Birmingham, Alabama. He was a Ford Foundation Scholar in its first class at Morehouse College. He did graduate work at The Catholic University of America, where he studied chemistry, physics and mathematics and completed his doctorate research at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology). After his Ph.D. he worked for private industry and did postdoctoral research as an NAS-NRC at NBS before becoming a staff scientist with the Goddard Space Flight Center at the peak of the space race in the 1960s. There he led the U.S. team that made the first observation of a comet with the telescope and spectrograph on International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite observation. In the 1970s, while serving as a professor at Howard University, Jackson became a cofounder and inaugural treasurer of NOBCChE. He also testified several times before the House and Senate Authorization and Appropriation Committees in the U.S. Congress, advocating for increased funding for historically Black colleges and universities. He secured funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to increase the underrepresented minority population of the graduate student cohort in the UC Davis Department of Chemistry.  

I am deeply honored by this award, said Jackson. Throughout my career I have worked to increase diversity in science because I truly believe that creativity and hard work in science – and in fact in all human endeavors – are the keys to success. These traits are not limited to any particular race, sex, or country and it is imperative that we let all of the talent we have flourish for the benefit of our country and the world.  

Many others have also recognized Jackson’s work. He is a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), NOBCChE and the American Chemical Society. NOBCChE granted him the Percy L. Julian Award, and AAAS gave him the association’s Science Lifetime Mentor Award. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific awarded him the 2019 Arthur B.C. Walker II Award, the APS recognized him with its 2021 Edgar E. Lilienfeld Prize, and the Planetary Society named asteroid 4322 Billjackson=1081 EE37 after him as well.  

The NSB will hold a special online ceremony about the winners on May 18, 2021, at 4 p.m. EDT, which will include a celebratory video, showcasing the work of Jackson and other awardees. The public is invited to attend via YouTube.  

— Alison Gillespie, National Science Board