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Black History Month: Mae Jemison

In 1992, as the science mission specialist for the space shuttle Endeavor, Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to go into space. I feel at this point that I should give the disclaimer that moreso than any other of the amazing ladies we’ve discussed during Black History Month here at Persephone, I have the strong urge to punctuate every sentence with “Neat!” Her career has been every indecisive kindergartener’s dream,* and she accomplished it all as a woman of color in an old boys’ club.

Jemison began working toward a degree in chemical engineering at Stanford at the age of sixteen where she ran up against the institutionalized prejudice you might expect. Of her studies there, she once said:

Majoring in engineering, I would be maybe one of two or three African-American students in my classes. Some professors would just pretend I wasn’t there. I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was just so dumb, the dumbest question he had ever heard. Then, when a white guy would ask the same question, the professor would say, ”That’s a very astute observation.”

While earning her medical degree in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jemison traveled around the world to help provide medical care to those without access in places like Kenya, Thailand, and Cuba. She later joined the Peace Corps and served as a medical officer in western Africa.

After leaving the Peace Corps, she began studies in yet another graduate degree, this time in engineering, and applied to the NASA astronaut training program. She became only the fifth black astronaut in NASA’s history, and the first black woman. After four years of training and study, she became the first black woman to travel to space, logging 190 hours, 30 minutes, and 23 seconds on the Endeavor mission.

Jemison eventually left NASA to pursue the social sciences, primarily the interaction of people with technology. Later, she founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence in honor of her mother, who was a teacher in the Chicago public schools for more than two decades. The Dorothy Jemison Foundation is a nonprofit organization that assists in the implementation of innovative, hands-on teaching principles that incorporate technology into the classroom. One of their primary projects is an international science camp that brings together kids from all over the world to help them develop critical thinking and problem solving skills through tackling major global problems together. (I can’t restrain myself this time. Neat!!!) She went on to become a professor at Dartmouth University and an advocate for getting minority students interested in the sciences.

To recap: Mae Jemison is a brilliant scientist who pushed through all manner of barriers and went farther (literally!) than any other black woman before her. Despite her background in the hard sciences, she respects the contribution of the social sciences and education. She’s a teacher and an advocate and all manner of awesome. I’ll leave you with this quote from Mae Jemison herself, in response to the question of what advice she would give to the youth of today.

Life is full of adventures. Some of them will be more demanding than others, but they all teach us about the world and ourselves along the way. Learn from your experiences ““ they shape who you become. Don’t limit yourself due to other people’s limited imaginations. And don’t limit others due to your own limited imagination.

*I want to be an engineer when I grow up. No, a doctor! No, an astronaut!

Image courtesy of NASA.

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