This post goes out to my 7-year old science-loving niece, Xenia. I hope that learning about all of these innovative and brilliant black Americans will inspire you to shoot for the stars.
You’ve probably seen a particular photo of Mae Jemison before: an orange puffy suit, a black round helmet, and a beautiful smile. But, like so many other groundbreaking black Americans, you probably don’t know her by name. Jemison is an engineer, physician, and astronaut. In fact, she was the first African American woman in space.
Mae Jemison was born in Alabama in 1956, and when she was 3-years old, her family moved to Chicago so she and her two siblings would have a better education. Her father was a roofer and carpenter and her mother was a teacher, and they encouraged all of her interests, including science and dance. A lot of her time outside of school was spent at the library, reading about many fields of science; she was especially fond of astronomy.
“Growing up, I always assumed I would go to space. I wanted to do lots of things: be a scientist, a dancer, a policymaker. I would make a difference in what happens in the world, and I knew that I could.” – Mae Jemison
She graduated from high school at age 16. She then went to Stanford University, where she earned degrees in chemical engineering and African American studies, graduating in 1977. As if working towards two concurrent degrees wasn’t enough, she also choreographed dance and served as the head of the Black Students Union.
She then enrolled in medical school at Cornell University, focusing on international medicine. She earned her MD in 1981. During her graduate studies, she spent time in Cuba, Thailand, and Kenya doing volunteer work. And, she took lessons in modern dance at the Alvin Ailey school.
“Many people do not see a connection between science and dance, but I consider them both to be expressions of the boundless creativity that people have to share with one another.” – Mae Jemison
After earning her MD, Jemison interned at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center, then became a general practitioner. From 1983 to 1985, she served as a Peace Corps Medical Officer, responsible for the health of Peace Corps Volunteers and US Embassy employees in Liberia and Sierra Leone. She also worked with the Center for Disease Control, assisting in vaccine research. She helped produce the hepatitis B vaccine.
One of Jemison’s inspirations as a young girl was Nichelle Nichols, the African American actress who played the role of Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. So, when Sally Ride became the first woman in space in 1983, Jemison started making her childhood dream a reality. She applied to NASA, but there was a delay in entering the astronaut program because of the 1986 Challenger Disaster. Then, in 1987, Jemison got the news she had always wanted – she was one of fifteen people chosen (out of 2,000 applicants) to enter the NASA astronaut program.
Jemison completed her training in 1988, then worked at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. She helped with launch support activities, verification of Shuttle computer software, and the Science Support Group activities. Then, in 1992, Jemison became the first African American woman in space on the space shuttle Endeavor. This was the 50th space shuttle mission (the second of Endeavor), and was a cooperative mission between the US and Japan, focusing on conducting experiments in life and material sciences. Jemison was a co-investigator on a bone cell research experiment, but she also did experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness. Jemison spent 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds in space.
“I left NASA because I’m very interested in how social sciences interact with technologies. People always think of technology as something having silicon in it. But a pencil is technology. Any language is technology. Technology is a tool we use to accomplish a particular task and when one talks about appropriate technology in developing countries, appropriate may mean anything from fire to solar electricity.” – Mae Jemison
Jemison became a Professor-at-Large at Cornell University and a professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College. She is an advocate for minority students getting involved in science fields. She has been a member of several scientific organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Chemical Society, the Association for Space Explorers, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 1993, Jemison founded the Jemison Group, a company that researches, markets, and develops science and technology for daily life. She founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, named in honor of her mother, which develops and implements teaching methods, curricula, materials and programs. One such program is The Earth We Share, an international science camp for students 12-16 years old. And, she is the lead at 100 Year Starship, which aims to make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years. “We unreservedly dedicate ourselves to identifying and pushing the radical leaps in knowledge and technology needed to achieve interstellar flight, while pioneering and transforming breakthrough applications that enhance the quality of life for all on Earth.”
In 1993, she became the first real-life astronaut to appear on Star Trek, when she did a guest performance on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Jemison has received many awards, including the the National Organization for Women’s Intrepid Award and the Kilby Science Award, being an inductee in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the National Medical Association Hall of Fame, and Texas Science Hall of Fame, and receiving many honorary doctorate degrees.