In 1992, engineer and physician Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman astronaut when she took flight aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. A lifelong lover of math and science, as a child she thought space travel would be a commonplace occurrence. Encouraged by her parents in her early years, Jemison studied science and its connection to nature. A skilled, avid dancer as well, she chose to pursue her love of science over her love of dance because, “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.”
Always dreaming big and never one to back down from a challenge, Jemison overcame many obstacles in her pursuit of her dream of becoming an astronaut. An elementary school teacher asked if she meant to answer nurse instead of scientist in response to the question of what she wanted to be when she grew up. Not even her own fear of heights could keep her from traveling into space. Wanting to share her love of science, she went on to create The Earth We Share, an international science camp encouraging science literacy and opportunities for children with an interest in science and space.
After her graduation from Morgan Park High School in Chicago, she attended Stanford University, enrolling when she was only 16 years old. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chemical Engineering and another in African and Afro-American Studies. She went on to earn her Doctor of Medicine degree from Cornell Medical College.
During her work as a general practitioner she continued to take dance lessons at the famed Alvin Ailey School before joining the Peace Corp. She served in this capacity for two years in Liberia and Sierra Leone. After leaving the Peace Corp she joined the Center for Disease Control researching various vaccines. Jemison joined NASA after the tragic flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger. She was part of the first class of post-Challenger astronauts, actually working on the first space flight following the Challenger flight.
Following her successful space mission, Jemison resigned from NASA in 1993 to pursue the study of social sciences and how they interact with technology. In the years following her pioneering work at NASA, Jemison became a public speaker. She has received several awards and honorary doctorates and continues to make great strides in the scientific community. Other scientific endeavors include:
- Founding the Jemison Group
- Founding the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence
- Founding BioSentient Corp
- Won the bid for the DARPA 100 Year Starship
Women everywhere can learn from Mae Jemison’s example of overcoming her fear of heights to soar to new heights in science and space. Women can learn from her ability to pursue her love of science while simultaneously pursuing her love of dance and the arts. Of this dual passion, she says, “The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin even, or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.”