Dr. Mae Jemison will always be known as the first Black woman in space. Jemison served as a mission specialist aboard the Shuttle Endeavor in 1992, logging over 190 hours, 30 minutes, and 23 seconds. She was also the first NASA mission specialist, performing experiments in material science, life science, and human adaptation to weightlessness in space.
It would be an understatement to say that Jemison has an impressive career trajectory in science. But she wasn’t always encouraged to achieve in science by those around her.
Jemison’s young life and interest in science was cultivated primarily by her parents, who used everyday experiences as opportunities to encourage her to explore. For example, when she had an infection in her thumb due to a splinter as a little girl, her mother helped her create an entire project to report her findings about puss.
Outside of her home though, Jemison often found herself being discouraged to pursue science because of her gender, her race, or both.
At the age of sixteen she went to Stanford University to study biochemical engineering. In an interview with The New York Times Magazine, Jemison said she was routinely ignored and made to feel ignorant by professors. “Some professors would just pretend I wasn’t there. I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was just so dumb, the dumbest question he had ever heard. Then, when a white guy would ask the same question, the professor would say, ‘That’s a very astute observation.'”
Jemison claims her youthful ignorance and desire to succeed pushed her to achieve where age and years might not otherwise be helpful. In addition to her degree in biochemical engineering, she obtained a B.A. in African and Afro-American studies. She then went on to complete a medical degree at Cornell Medical University and practiced in a Los Angeles hospital. As if this wasn’t enough, Jemison was also an accomplished dancer, and even gave up her aspirations to dance on Broadway for science.
Jemison left NASA in 1993 to found her own company, revealing that she was “very interested in how social sciences interact with technologies. People always think of technology as something having silicon in it. But a pencil is technology. Any language is technology. Technology is a tool we use to accomplish a particular task and when one talks about appropriate technology in developing countries, appropriate may mean anything from fire to solar electricity.”
Now Jemison wants to make sure other young people of color don’t have to face those circumstances she faced within the education system. However, she is in an uphill battle in doing so. Despite many programs focused on increasing minority participation in STEM, over 84% of positions in math and science are currently held by men of white or Asian backgrounds. Even more alarming, recent data reveals that over 40% of minorities are discouraged in university from pursuing a degree in STEM by a college professor.
Jemison believes much of this is due to subtle microaggressions that take place in the educational or workplace environments, “[Its] couched in things like, we want them to act and behave like we do. Or there are people who get degrees and then they are not included.”
Despite all this, Jemison believes we can propel students to succeed in science and in their careers through the three E’s – exposure, experience and expectation.
Exposure includes introducing children to diverse job roles they might not otherwise know of, like engineers, bio techs, etc. As Jemison says, “it helps to know what those things are so you’re not afraid of it.”
She claims that through exposure, we dissipate feelings of being an outsider to the field by increasing awareness and familiarity.
Experience helps students gain interactive learning as to how STEM fields work – hands on science in particular is a powerful way to physically connect with science, like learning about electricity when wiring a flashlight.
Lastly, expectation is of extreme importance. Jemison claims that, “we should expect our kids to succeed and to achieve. Children live up or down to our expectation.”