In America, in 1961, perhaps the only thing more surprising than a little girl answering the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “a scientist”, was hearing that response from a little African-American girl. Yet, when her kindergarten teacher asked Mae Jemison that question, “a scientist” was precisely the answer she gave, and much to the surprise of almost everyone around her, a scientist is precisely what she grew up to be.
Sometimes people want to tell you to act or to be a certain way. Sometimes people want to limit you because of their own limited imaginations.
The daughter of a teacher and a maintenance supervisor, Mae grew up in Chicago, where she attended public school. She was extremely bright and showed an early aptitude for maths and science. However, despite her obvious intelligence and skill, her teachers discouraged her from pursuing a career in science. Still, Mae was not deterred and at only sixteen years, she graduated high school and began attending Stanford University, where she majored in African Studies and Chemical Engineering. She learned to speak Swahili and Russian, earned her bachelor’s degree, and was accepted to Cornell University’s Medical School.
We look at science as something very elite, which only a few people can learn. That’s just not true. You just have to start early and give kids a foundation. Kids live up, or down, to expectations.
Mae wanted to use her time and talents to benefit others, so while enrolled in medical school at Cornell, she took advantage of the opportunity to practice international medicine. She travelled to Thailand, where she spent a summer volunteering at a Cambodian refugee camp, and in 1979, she studied in Kenya. Two years later, she graduated from medical school and soon, she began putting her international medical experience to work in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where she served as a medical officer in the Peace Corps. As part of her service, she provided medical care to both members of the peace corps and the US embassy. She also taught classes, developed public health and safety guidelines, and coordinated with the National Institute of Health and the Center for Disease Control to conduct research on several vaccines, including Hepatitis B and rabies.
I always knew I’d go to space.
Mae returned to the United States in 1985, where she entered private practice while also taking graduate-level engineering classes. The following January, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73-seconds into its mission, killing everyone on board. Even for people in the field, that could have been a deterrent, dampening any desires to go to space. But not for Mae. Instead, she applied to NASA, and roughly a year later, she was one of only 15 exceptional applicants who were selected to join.
Over the next six years, Mae served NASA in a variety of capacities. She worked as a mission specialist and an astronaut office representative. She processed shuttles for launches and verified their software. And then, in 1992, she was given the opportunity to make history. She was invited to join the crew of a joint US-Japanese mission, where she would serve as the science mission specialist.
Once I got into space, I was feeling very comfortable in the universe. I felt like I had a right to be anywhere in this universe, that I belonged here as much as any speck of stardust, any comet, any planet.
On September 12th 1992, Mae boarded the Space Shuttle Endeavor and became the first African-American woman in space. During her mission, where she conducted experiments on bone marrow, Mae orbited the earth 127 times and logged just under 200 hours in space.
Mae left NASA the following year to open the Jemison Group, a tech company that consults on a variety of potentially world-changing products and projects. She also began teaching at Dartmouth College’s school of medicine and serving as the Director of the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries. She continues to serve in both of those capacities today.