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Mae Jemison – The First Female Black Astronaut

Influential scientists, in particular scientists who were female or people of color, have always been an inspiration for me, while exploring their stories and learning about how they paved the way for future scientific discoveries as well as diversity in research.

One scientist in particular is Mae Carol Jemison, the first female African-American astronaut, who I found her story particularly interesting as even as a young child, Jemison was frustrated with the lack of diversity in science and knew that no matter what people said, she wanted to become a scientist. In fact, in kindergarten, when asked about what she wanted to do in the future, Jemison responded that she wanted to become a scientist, to which the teacher replied with, “Don’t you mean a nurse?” This annoyed Jemison, as she was frustrated that girls were expected to become nurses, rather than scientists.

Despite the adversity she faced as an African-American woman, Jemison had many remarkable achievements as the first female African-American astronaut in space, as well as a doctor, engineer, scientist, philanthropist, dancer, TV personality. In addition, she has also published books and spoken as an advocate for racial and gender equality.

“In kindergarten my teacher asked me—actually asked the whole class—now what do you want to be when you grow up? And I said, ‘I want to be a scientist.’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘Don’t you mean a nurse?’ Now clearly, there is no issue with being a nurse. But the issue back then was, is that’s the only thing she could see a little girl growing up to do, that had something to do with sciences. So she was trying to help guide me and counsel me, and… as to what was possible. But I really just put my hands on my hips, and I said, ‘No, I mean a scientist.'”

Mae C. Jemison

The early life and education of Mae Jemison

Mae Carol Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama on October 17, 1956 as the youngest of three children. At three years old, Jemison moved to Chicago, Illinois with her family, where she grew up and attended Chicago public schools from elementary to high school.

During that time, her uncle introduced her to science, where she became fascinated with anthropology, archeology, evolution, and astronomy. However, during the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s, Jemison recalled that, “everybody was thrilled about space, but I remember being really really irritated that there were no women astronauts.”

In high school, Jemison became interested in biomedical engineering, so after she graduated from high school, she attended Stanford University in California at the age of 16, where she majored in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies.

She was very involved in her school, as she was an avid dancer and was part of the dance and theater productions, and she was also the president of the Black Student Union. In fact, Jemison had to face a hard decision between becoming a dancer or choosing to pursue medicine, and while she ended up choosing medicine, dance still played an important role in her scientific career as she states that “When I think about the arts and the physical sciences, I think that they’re both part of creativity… The arts and the sciences, they provide a fuller understanding of the universe and the world around us.” However, Jemison was one of the only African-American students at her school, so she would experience racial discrimination.

After she had graduated from Stanford, Jemison received what she believed was the best counseling advice she had gotten when a doctor told her, “You know, if you want to do biomedical engineering and you want to run your own projects, then it would be really great for you to have an M.D.. Because sometimes M.D.s are difficult to get along with if you don’t have a medical degree.” This inspired her to attend medical school, so she enrolled in Cornell University Weill Medical College in 1977. During this time, she volunteered at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand and studied in Kenya and Cuba. She earned her doctorate in medicine in 1981.

“My uncle, Uncle Louis, we’d look up at the stars and he would tell me they were really suns; they just were so small because they were so many miles away. He even discussed things with me about me about Einstein’s theory of relativity, at 6-7-8 years old, so I always assumed that I was supposed to be able to understand these things. It wasn’t something that was outside of the ordinary for me.”

Mae C. Jemison
Dr. Jemison trained for many years before becoming an astronaut on mission STS-47. Image Source

Dr. Jemison’s work in international medicine and the beginning of her journey with NASA

However, Dr. Jemison wanted to work in international medicine and help developing countries, so she signed to be a medical officer in the Peace Corps for two and a half years in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where she also conducted medical research on the Hepatitis B vaccine, schistosomiasis and rabies while teaching and training volunteers. During this time, she was in charge of managing the healthcare delivery system, providing medical care, supervising the pharmacy, laboratory, and other medical staff.

After she returned to the United States, she worked at CIGNA Health Plans as a General Practitioner and also took graduate engineering classes. 

However, in 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. This inspired Mae Jemison to apply for NASA’s space program to pursue her childhood dream of going to space. Although NASA took a temporary break from accepting applications after the Challenger exploded in 1986, Jemison applied again the following year.

Out of 2,000 applicants, Jemison was one of the 15 applicants who were selected for the program, and she became the first African-American woman to be chosen for NASA’s space program. By 1988, Jemison completed her training as a science mission specialist, which meant that she could conduct scientific experiments on the space shuttle, and during that time, she worked on the Kennedy Space Center and Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory to verify the Shuttle computer software.

This was Dr. Jemison aboard the Endeavour! Image Source

The famous mission to space

However, her opportunity came on September 12, 1992, when Jemison went aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-47 Spacelab-J. This mission was the first international collaboration between the United States and Japan, and the crew consisted of Mae Jemison, who was the first female African-American astronaut in space, Mamoru Mohri, the first Japanese astronaut to go into space, Jan Davis and Mark Lee, the first married couple to fly on the same mission, as well as Robert Gibson, Curtis Brown, and Jerome Apt.

As the science mission specialist, Jemison was in charge of overseeing the 44 experiments in materials processing and life sciences being conducted while in orbit. Within the Space Shuttle, it contained a Spacelab module, which was a 23-foot long pressurized laboratory built specifically for conducting experiments with equipment racks to hold furnaces, computer and biological workstations, biological incubators, storage lockers and other equipment to perform pharmaceutical, biotechnology, metallurgy, infrared detector technology, superconductivity, and semiconductor technology experiments in space.

Jemison was the co-investigator for the Bone Cell Research experiment, which investigated the impact of space flight on bone cell function to discover why bones become weaker with space flight.

In addition, Jemison also worked with Mohri to use the Autogenic Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE) to minimize motion sickness using biofeedback techniques. This could help patients suffering from motion sickness or anxiety-related disorders by controlling their physiology using Autogenic Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE).

Some other experiments Jemison participated in include NASA’s Fluid Therapy System, which used water to produce saline solution in space, and another experiment that artificially inseminated a batch of frog eggs to investigate how tadpoles develop in space.

On the Space Shuttle, the crew was split into two shifts, the blue and red team, for around-the-clock operations, while Jemison was on the blue team. Being a Star Trek fan, Jemison would open her shift with “Hailing frequencies open,” which is a Star Trek quote that meant establishing communication. During this mission, Jemison logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, and 23 seconds in space.

After NASA, Dr. Jemison founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence with her siblings, which includes the program The Earth We Share (TEWS), dedicated to improving scientific literacy in students. Image Source

Dr. Jemison continued to pursue science and international medicine after the NASA space mission

In March 1993, Jemison left NASA and founded The Jemison Group, which is a technology consulting firm that considers the socioeconomic impacts of engineering and science projects, such as satellite technology for healthcare delivery and solar dish Stirling engine electricity. This was inspired by her experiences as a Peace Corps officer and NASA astronaut, since being a Peace Corps Medical Officer opened her eyes to healthcare in developing countries, while being a NASA astronaut taught her about remote sensing satellite telecommunications.

In addition, Dr. Jemison also founded the BioSentient Corporation in 1999, which is a medical technology company that focuses on improving health and human performance, such as a portable device that monitors the involuntary nervous system for patients with anxiety and stress-related disorders, as well as the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, in honor of her mother. A program from this organization is The Earth We Share (TEWS), an international science camp for students aged 12-16 that is held around the world, including in South Africa, Tunisia, and Switzerland. This program aims to improve scientific literacy and problem solving skills by working to solve contemporary global issues.

Dr. Jemison is also an advocate for innovation in physical and social sciences, as she leads the 100 Year Starship (100YSS), a bold initiative that serves to insure that human travel to another star will be possible within the next 100 years.

Dr. Jemison taught as an associate professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, where she taught sustainable development and technology, and she is an A. D. White Professor-At-Large at Cornell University.

Today, Dr. Jemison is a vocal advocate for diversity, inclusion, representation, and equality in STEM. Image Source

Her experiences with discrimination inspired her to become an advocate for diversity and representation in STEM

Jemison was frustrated by the lack of diversity in science, and she faced discrimination from her teachers when she was at Stanford as she was often one of the few African-American students in her class. But despite this, Jemison accredits her perseverance and success to her parents, who supported her career as a scientist.

As a child, her favorite books were Wrinkle in Time and The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle, because she recalled, “Those books stand out because they had women scientists and girl heroines.” To help increase diversity in science, Jemison frequently speaks about the importance of representation in media, as children will be able to see characters like them.

In fact, one of Jemison’s inspirations as a child was Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek as an African-American character. Jemison’s everlasting love for the show Star Trek finally became a reality as she received the opportunity to appear on the show as Lieutenant Palmer on the episode “Second Chances,” becoming the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek.

In a collaboration with pharmaceutical company Bayer and youth organization 4-H, Jemison created an initiative called “Science Matters,” which introduces children to agricultural science. Jemison continues to fight for equality and diversity in science, as she believes that including women in STEM is a necessity for innovation.

As a vocal advocate for improving access to education and inclusion of girls in STEM programs, Jemison frequently speaks at events about diversity, representation, inclusion, and equality. For her achievements, Dr. Jemison has received many awards, including induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the National Medical Association Hall of Fame, and the International Space Hall of Fame.

“It’s not about just making girls continuously jump over these hurdles that we put in place in front of them. It’s about us taking those hurdles down,”

Mae Jemison

As the first female African-American astronaut and a physician during a time where women weren’t expected to become doctors or scientists, Dr. Mae Jemison has faced dozens of challenges during her journey.

Nevertheless, she persevered, and today, she is an inspiring astronaut, doctor, engineer, scientist, philanthropist, dancer, TV personality, who never backed down despite the adversity she faced as a woman and African-American in STEM. She is now an avid advocate for diversity, representation, inclusion, and equality, as she hopes to inspire and encourage students to pursue STEM in the future.

I, myself, was inspired by her story, and as a girl hoping to pursue science as a career in the future, Dr. Jemison’s achievements, entrepreneurship, and mission to help others gives me hope to dream big in the future.

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