This is part of a brand-new series called “Women in STEM,” where we spotlight different women in STEM fields including engineering and science. We hope their stories can help inspire women to not feel discouraged in the male-dominated workforce. This week, we focus on Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space.
Dr. Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space. She was born on October 17, 1956 in Alabama, but she grew up in Chicago, Illinois. As a child, she always loved science and space even though her interest in science was not accepted by her teachers and even her college professors. She graduated from Stanford in 1977 with a B.S. in chemical engineering, and went on to get her Doctor of Medicine degree from Cornell Medical College in 1981.
Dr. Jemison decided to apply to NASA’s astronaut program after being inspired by the actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. She was selected to the astronaut program as one of 15 out of over 2000 applicants, and she was in the first class of astronauts selected after Challenger in 1986. Before going into space, she worked on launch support and Shuttle computer software at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. From September 12 to 20, 1992, she was a Mission Specialist aboard STS-47, a collaboration between the U.S. and Japan. Onboard in space, she conducted experiments on bone cell research, and also weightlessness and motion sickness. However, she left NASA in 1993 and went on to found her own company, The Jemison Group, to develop technology for daily life. She also is passionate about getting minority students interested in science.
In addition to Dr. Jemison’s love for science and space, she also loves dancing. She started dancing when she was 11, and studied all kinds of dance, including African dancing, ballet, jazz, and modern styles. She even wanted to become a professional dancer, but chose medical school after her mother told her, “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.”
Dr. Jemison believes that science and dance are connected as “expressions of the boundless creativity that people have to share with one another.” She even appeared as a character on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and she was the first real astronaut to ever appear on the show.
Despite the challenges she faced as a woman of color pursuing engineering, her accomplishments throughout her life are inspiring. She was passionate about science, but she also loved art through dance and found her own way to merge her interests together. Her life is just one example of how women in STEM can achieve whatever they want to.