Although dance was among her first loves while growing up in Decatur, Alabama, Mae Jemison also had a high degree of interest in science, particularly space exploration. “I always knew I’d go to space,” she says with a smile. A desire to help others through medicine was also high on her list. With determination, she set out to make her dreams come true. She entered college at age 16 as a chemical engineering student and after earning her degree, she completed medical school and practiced in Los Angeles before joining the Peace Corps’ as a Medical Officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Africa. While there, she researched Hepatitis B, schistosomaisis and rabies with the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institutes of Health. Returning to California, her next goal was to be accepted into NASA’s astronaut program, which she accomplished on her second try in 1987.
Why She’s Important: Among her diverse range of achievements, Mae is primarily known for being the first African American female astronaut. She was the science mission specialist on STS-47 Spacelab-J flight in 1992, a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan. The eight-day mission was accomplished in 127 orbits of the Earth, and included 44 life science and materials processing experiments. Mae was a co-investigator on the bone cell research experiment conducted on the mission. During this flight, she logged more than 190 hours in space.
Other Achievements: Since 1999 she has served as founder and CEO of BioSentient Corporation based in Houston, TX, a medical technology company that develops and markets mobile equipment worn to monitor body’s vital signs and train people to respond favorably in stressful situations. She is also founder of the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence (named for her mother), which runs an internationally-known science camp called The Earth We Share. In addition Mae is nationally recognized for her efforts to motivate and prepare more students, including minorities and females, to enter science, technology, ,engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.
Also of note: She speaks fluent Russian, Japanese, and Swahili, is trained in dance and choreography, and is the first authentic astronaut to appear on the television production of Star Trek: The Next Generation (which she did in 1993).
Education: Mae earned her Bachelor’s of Science degree in chemical engineering from Stanford University, and her M.D. from Cornell University.
In Her Own Words: Speaking about her quest to enhance science education — particularly by encouraging educators to adopt a new vision of learning that combines arts and sciences (intuition and logic), she says: “The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.”