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Mae Jemison: Doctor, Teacher, Founder of Two Technology Companies, and the First African-American woman in Space

This profile on Dr. Mae Jemison, is the thirteenth post in a month-long series of profiles on Black STEM innovators in honor of Black History Month. Today’s post is in honor of Dr. Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, in addition to being a doctor, teacher, and founder of two technology companies.

Dr. Mae Jemison, had an early passion for two things: dance and science. Her love of science glued her young eyes to the TV screen for the televised Apollo missions, where Dr. Jemison noticed that there were no female astronauts included on the expedition teams1. Despite a lack of actual female astronauts, Dr. Jemison took inspiration from another space odyssey: Star Trek. Specifically, Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols1,2

Dr. Jamison's love for science and science fiction encouraged her to read in order to satisfy her scientific and curious mind. After moving from her birth state of Alabama to Chicago, Dr. Jemison read Madeline L'Engle's books A Wrinkle in Time and The Arm of the Starfish during a reading spree in sixth grade3. Dr. Jemison recalled ”Those books stand out because they had women scientists and girl heroines.3

After graduating high school in 1973, Dr. Jemison attended Stanford University as one of only a few African American students1,2. Despite facing discrimination throughout her college years, Dr. Jemison persisted to earn a B.S. in Chemical Engineering as well as a B.A. in African and African-American studies before attending Cornell Medical School to earn a Doctorate in Medicine in 19812. During her schooling at at Cornell, Dr. Jemison undertook numerous international trips with various student medical associations. Later, in 1983, Dr. Jemison became a member of the Peace Corps and served in Africa as a medical officer for two years2. Unsurprisingly due to her travels and passion for knowledge, Dr. Jemision is fluent in Fluent in Russian, Japanese, and Swahili2

Post-graduation, Dr. Jemison used her experience to help others as an an intern at the Los Angeles County Medical Center then entered the field officially as a general medicine practitioner and opened her own private practice1,2. Though her early passions for science and space travel may seem like they were left in her childhood, Dr. Jemison quickly returned to her celestial aspirations after hearing about Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, which prompted Dr. Jemison to apply to NASA2. NASA took a break from accepting new applicants after the Challenger explosion in 1986, but this did not quiet Dr. Jemison’s dreams so she applied the following year and became one of 15 people selected out of 2,000 applicants2.

After much training at the Kennedy Space Center, Dr. Jemison and her flight mates launched into orbit on September 12, 1992, officially making Dr. Jemison the first African-American woman in space2

During this mission, Dr. Jemison reported looking at the earth and seeing Chicago which prompted memories of her childhood. "I felt like I belonged right there in space," she recalled. "I realized I would feel comfortable anywhere in the universe — because I belonged to and was a part of it, as much as any star, planet, asteroid, comet, or nebula.3

After eight days in space, orbiting the earth 127 times, the shuttle landed. Dr. Jemison left NASA in 1993 after accomplishing her dream. Once Dr. Jemison’s feet were back on earth’s soil, she founded The Jemison Group to foster science, technology, and social change; the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries; accepted a teaching position at Dartmouth College; and became the Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University3.

In addition to being the first African-American woman in space, Dr. Jemison is also the first astronaut to play a character on the revamp of her favorite childhood show, Star Trek: The Next Generation3.

Dr. Jemison used her success to pave the way for aspirational children, since she was a young girl with a dream for which there were no role models that looked like her. To this end, Dr. Jemison created an international space camp for students 12-16 years old called The Earth We Share (TEWS) in 1994, created a nonprofit organization called the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, and wrote a children’s book in 2001 called Find Where the Wind Goes2,3.

Dr. Jemison is now leading the 100 Year Starship project, an effort to enhance the possibilities of space travel, funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); serves on the Board of Directors for many organizations such as Scholastic, Inc. and the Texas State Product Development and Small Business Incubator; and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine3. Over her groundbreaking career, Dr. Jemison was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, National Medical Association Hall of Fame, Texas Science Hall of Fame and received the National Organization for Women’s Intrepid Award and the Kilby Science Award among many other awards and honorary degrees3.

 

References:

1.    National Women’s History Museum. Mae Jemison. Retrieved fromhttps://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mae-jemison.

2.    Space.com. (2018, October 4). Mae Jemison: Astronaut Biography. Retrieved from https://www.space.com/17169-mae-jemison-biography.html.

3. Scholastic. (2020). Meet a Super Scientist. Retrieved from http://teacher.scholastic.com/space/mae_jemison/index.htm.