Woman Crush Wednesday: Dr. Mae C. Jemison

Dr. Mae C. Jemison was the first Black female astronaut to travel in space on the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992.   In 1956, Mae was born in Decatur, Alabama to Charlie, a roofer and carpenter and Dorothy an elementary school teacher. When she was only a toddler her family moved to Chicago, Illinois.  From an early age Mae took an interest in science, especially astronomy, spending much of her time in the school library.  Her interests were quite varied, in addition to her love of science and astronomy, Mae loved architecture and the arts, training as a dancer and participating in dance and theater arts productions in both High School and College. After graduating from high school with honors Mae was accepted to Stanford University on a National Achievement Scholarship to pursue biomedical engineering.   There she completed a B.S. in chemical engineering and afterward was admitted for a Doctorate from Cornell University.  Her medical studies took her abroad to South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, working in a camp in Thailand for Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge. 

After obtaining her M.D. and interning in California Dr. Jemison joined the Peace Corps and became a medical officer in both Sierra Leone and Liberia doing medical research and teaching.  In 1985 with a well established career in the medical field Dr. Jemison decided to change course and revisit her childhood passion of astronomy. In 1985 she applied for the NASA astronaut training program and in 1987, undeterred by the tragedy of the Challenger mission, became the first Black woman to be accepted.  Dr. Jemison received the title of science mission specialist for the Endeavor mission during which she conducted experiments on the crew pertaining to weightlessness and motion sickness.  Inspired by her own experience as a Black woman in America and knowing the importance of this identity being included in the legacy of American space travel, Dr. Jemison made an effort to include others in her mission. On her trip to space, Dr. Jemison brought a Bundu statue representing a women’s society in West Africa, a poster of Judith Jamison dancing Alvin Ailey’s seminal choreography “Cry” that Mr. Ailey dedicated to “all Black women everywhere- especially our mother’s”, and an Alpha Alpha Kappa flag representing the oldest standing Black sorority.  Dr. Mae C. Jemison believed her 8 days in space and the recognition she received for her efforts were most importantly a testament to what women, and especially Black can do when given the opportunity.

After retiring from NASA in 1993 she founded The Jemison Group, “a technology consulting firm integrating critical socio-cultural issues into the design of engineering and science projects”.  Dr. Jemison has remained committed to her medical, academic and technology driven passions: serving on the board of directors of the World Sickle Cell Foundation, teaching as faculty of environmental studies at Dartmouth College and as a Professor-at-large program of Cornell University, founding Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence whose programs included The Earth We Share, a science camp for teenagers, serving as principal to the DARPA program 100 year starship, collaborating on numerous projects with organizations the likes of Bayer Crop Science and National 4-H Council, and publishing written work geared towards inspiring and educating young people including her memoir Find Where the Wind Goes in 1991, celebrated for its depiction of Dr. Jemison’s own experience with discrimination. 

A well awarded, well appointed spokesperson for the advancement of women and Black women in the world of science, medicine and technology Dr. Jemison has been spreading her enthusiasm and knowledge on the world stage appearing on a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in 1993, hosting science programs on the Discovery Channel, appearing in African American Lives; a PBS production tracing African-American  family heritage, and appearing in a forum for young women in Washington D.C.  with then first lady Michelle Obama in 2009.  Most recently she was included in the 2017 LEGO set “Women of NASA”, and on International’s Women’s Day in 2019, an honorary Google doodle included her quote “”Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” Dr. Jemison herself is the proof of how a limitless, creative imagination can create limitless possibilities

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