The annual celebration of Black History Month is upon us again, a time to reflect and celebrate influential individuals of African Diaspora. In such a male-dominated world of science where women were not always valued as scientists, one woman with a dream proved so many wrong. Mae C. Jemison, born 17th October 1956, is an African-American woman from Decatur, Alabama who inspired many scientists in her lifetime. Oh, and did I mention she was the first African-American to travel into space?
(Dr. Jemison in zero gravity in the center aisle of the Spacelab Japan science module aboard the Earth-orbiting Endeavour)
Having grown up in the sixties where racial discrimination was still very much a common aspect of American culture, Mae C. Jemison had experienced hardships in her life. She had once declared that “African-Americans, as women, many times we do not feel that we have the power to change the world and society as a whole.” This was a common view amongst African-Americans living in the U.S. during that time period, however at that moment in time Jemison did not realise that she would live to prove that statement very wrong indeed.
Mae C. Jemison grew up with a love of science and dance, and at the age of sixteen was accepted into Stanford University having been awarded a national achievement scholarship. She spent the next three years studying Chemical Engineering and African-American studies, receiving a double degree.
After finishing at Stanford, Jemison then went on to train as a doctor at Cornell University Medical School. Subsequently, she took up many opportunities after medical school; one of her most significant becoming the Area Peace Corps Medical Officer for Liberia and Sierra Leone. This role required her to manage health care delivery systems, such as supplying medical care and supervising medical administrative issues. She assisted in developing curriculums and executing the creation of public health guidelines for volunteers and training sites. Further to her role she assisted in the research for a vaccine for Hepatitis B, schistosomiasis and rabies.
These achievements would be tremendous for most people, especially considering the degree of discrimination she was exposed to, but Jemison didn’t stop here. What she had dreamt of from an early age was to go to space and that’s what she intended to do. So on 4th June 1987 Dr. Jemison pursued her life-long dream, becoming the first African-American to be accepted into a NASA training programme. She was one of 15 selected from the two thousand that applied.
On 12th September 1992 Dr. Jemison embarked on a mission that would change history forever. She became the first African-American and astronaut from Chicago to travel into space. She was also the first person to ever dance in space (why not!). Her role on board the Endeavour space mission was as a ‘science mission specialist’ investigating a bone cell research experiment that was with them on the mission. Whilst on board she undertook some research to investigate the effects of weightlessness and motion sickness in some of the crew on board. She also looked at the development of tadpoles in space with no gravity, concluding that it was able to fully develop into a frog with no known defects.
What’s more intriguing about Dr Jemison is not what she achieved in that moment, but what she had brought with her on the mission. To represent women who were not always included in society she took a poster of African-American dancer Judith Jamison, a Bundu statue representing a woman’s society in Africa and a flag from the Alpha Kappa Alpha society, being the oldest American-African society in the U.S. She wanted these items to symbolise that space belongs to all nations and promote equality giving recognition to those who were overlooked within society. This powerful statement reflects on her compassionate nature as an individual, despite all the hardships that had been inflicted on her throughout her life.
In 1993 Dr. Jemison left the NASA programme to set up the Jemison Group which is a company involved in technology and design consultancy. The company worked to improve healthcare in Africa, such as assisting in the design aspects of creating solar thermal electricity generation systems aimed at developing countries.
After the success of the Endeavour space mission, Dr. Jemison was awarded with honorary doctorates. She achieved many awards throughout her career, some of these including National Women’s Hall of Fame (1993), International Space Hall of Fame (2004) and NASA Space Flight Medal. Among her achievements she also had a museum and educational institutions named after her, in honour of her achievements. I mean who else can say they had a school named after them?!
Mae. C Jemison has been a doctor, astronaut, chemical engineer and a dancer, but most importantly a role model for so many scientists - females and African-Americans. So remember this article, it shows that hard work and courage can pay off regardless of race or gender, because as a young Mae C.Jemison once said ‘The best way to make dreams come true is to wake up’.