Mae Carol Jemison, MD, is a dancer, engineer and physician best known for being the first black woman to go to space. Before she went into space, she served in the Peace Corps as a doctor. After she went to space, she founded a company, BioSentient, that focuses on technology and the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence. Among other things, the foundation promotes science to youth. A huge Star Trek fan, she is the first real astronaut to make an appearance on the show. She taught Environmental Studies and written books.
Mae Jemison became interested in science at a young age.
Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama on 17th October, 1956 to Charlie and Dorothy Jemison, the youngest of her parents’ three children. Her parents moved to Chicago when she was three.
Growing up, she saw science as a way to explore the world around her. Her parents used everyday activities as teaching moments, and taught her to ask questions. For example, when she got a splinter as a young child that got infected, her mother used it as a learning experience. It inspired her to study the hows and whys of medicine, including at one point, conducting a project focused on pus. From there, her interest continued and she was known to ask questions all the time.
Unfortunately, Jemison’s teachers were not always supportive of her interest in science. She remembered an instance from kindergarten when her teacher asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew 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 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.’” (Changing the Face of Medicine 2015)
Dancing became an invaluable outlet and tool for Mae Jemison.
Even as a child, Jemison loved to dance. She started taking dance lessons at the age of 9. Over the years, she learned many different types of dancing, including African, Jazz, modern, and Japanese dance styles. She continued dancing and got involved in dance theater as a teenager, which she continued through college and medical school. For Jemison, science and dance are not as different as most people believe. She believes that creativity is an important part of both science and dance. She also said that dancing was helpful to her. Dancing helped her overcome stage fright and taught her discipline.
Jemison also has a love for learning foreign languages, useful in her international and collaborative work. As a result, she is fluent in Russian, Japanese, and Swahili.
At 16, Jemison went to Stanford University on a National Achievement Scholarship.
At Stanford, she got a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and a Bachelor of Arts in African American Studies in 1977. While at Stanford, she was active in dancing, theater, and the Black Student Union. Her senior year of college, she debated about whether she wanted to pursue a career in dance or a career in medicine. It was her mother who encouraged her to get her medical degree. Her mother said, ”You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer”.
Jemison went to Cornell University Medical College after graduating with her double bachelors. While pursuing her medical degree, she continued taking dance classes. During Medical School, Jemison, traveled all over the world, helping provide medical care for people in Kenya, Thailand, and Cuba.
After graduating from medical school in 1981, she worked in a general practice for a couple of years before joining the Peace Corps as a medical officer working in Sierra Leone and Liberia. While she was with the Peace Corps, she taught and conducted research, including research on developing a hepatitis B vaccine, as well as providing health care of Peace Corps workers.
When Jemison returned to the United States, she chose to apply for the NASA astronaut training program.
Jemison had long been interested in going to space, though as a child been interested in space since she was a child watching the Apollo flights in the news. She remembers, however, being frustrated because there were no women or people of color. She said that this meant that the space program didn’t feel relevant to a lot of people.
Jemison was inspired, instead, by Lieutenant Uhura (played by Michelle Nichols) from Star Trek–a black woman serving on the spaceship bridge in a technical role. So she initially applied after Sally Ride–the first American woman to go to space–went on a Mission in 1983. Her application got delayed because of the Challenger explosion. In 1986, however, Jemison was finally accepted into the NASA astronaut training program.
On the 12th September of 1992, Jemison launched into space aboard the Endeavor as a Mission Specialist. This flight, the 50th Space Shuttle flight, was part of a cooperative research project of the United States and Japan.
While in space, Jemison worked on a number of research projects, including research on the effects of weightlessness motion sickness (Mae Jemison Biography 2019)
After her flight, Jemison left NASA and turned her focus to teaching, creating her own technology company, and promoting science among the youth.
As a black woman scientist and the first black woman in space, Jemison felt the need to use her knowledge and experiences to promote technology and science. From 1995 to 2002, she taught Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College, and is currently an at-large professor at Cornell University She doesn’t limit herself to teaching in a university classroom, however.
She founded Biosentient, part of the larger Jemison Group. The Jemison Group has the right to commercialize NASA technology. Biosentient provides medical equipment and specialized medical training.
Jemison allso founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation of Excellence, named after her mother. The Jemison Foundation promotes science and technology in many different ways. It is working with NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and Icarus Interstellar on the 100 Year Starship project to research the technology needed for future manned interstellar travel.
The foundation also sponsors The Earth We Share (TEWS) project, which is an international program encouraging students to use science to address global issues at a four week science camp.
Mae Jemison has been recognized repeatedly for her work in promoting science.
Among them, Jemison received the Essence Science and Technology award in 1988. She was named one of McCall’s 10 Outstanding Women for the 90s in 1991, and inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1983, the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 2002, and the International Space Hall of Fame in 2004. She has has received nine honorary doctorates.
She has had 6 buildings named after her, including the Jemison Science and Space Museum in 1992 and five schools between 1992 and 2013. She was even invited to appear in an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation in 1993, the first real astronaut to do so. She has written several books, including her autobiography Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments From My Life, published in 2001, and a series of books called True Books published by Scholastic.
Other Amazing African American Women
Katherine Johnson – African-American mathematician who worked for NASA and who’s orbital calculations were critical to the U.S. manned space flights.
Mary Eliza Mahoney – First African-American Nurse
Marie M. Daly, Ph.D – First African-American woman to achieve a doctorate in Chemistry working with DNA.