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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Prof reached for stars, and made it

In 1992, Mae Jemison accomplished the feat that put her in the history books -- aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, she became the first woman of color to go into space.

"Overall, [the launch was] an incredible experience," she said. "How it's changed me I'll probably figure out over time."

Jemison said she experienced many levels of emotions during the launch, including astonishment at the view from the shuttle, pride at her professional accomplishment as on-board Mission Science Officer and wonder at the physiological sensations of no gravity -- her enjoyment of which was heightened by her lifetime interest in dance.

As a child, Jemison said she used to look up at the sky and developed a strong desire to go into space.

Finally, after a tough selection process and years of training, the wonderment of space made her optimistic about humanity, giving her "the idea that maybe as humans we do have better things to do, that we might get beyond our desire and our need to be so destructive to each other and our environment."

However, her triumph in space was tainted by questions of historical timing -- why did it take so long for a woman of color to go into space?

She was not "the first woman of color with the skills or desire to go," Jemison pointed out.

"On the other hand, it signaled that finally we as a society were starting to take advantage of the resources and talents that we had," she added.

Renaissance Woman

Leaving NASA was a very tough decision for Jemison to make, she said, but she was interested in putting the skills she had acquired to more down-to-earth uses.

Ten years later, the list of her other professional interests has become as long as it is varied -- engineer, doctor, professor, advocate.

"What I find is that all the pieces always fit together," she said, describing the seemingly disjointed directions of her professions.

If there is a theme that runs through her chosen career paths, she concedes, "it's creativity and learning new things and being able to apply them in new ways."

"We're always evolving and moving forward, sometimes we move behind but we're always there." Jemison added.

Prior to NASA, Jemison discovered her interest in primary care medicine in such places as Liberia and Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps medical officer, and worked as a doctor in California for two years.

She remembered having her skills and creativity tested by the conditions of the developing regions, in terms of the limited supply of equipment and resources.

However, Jemison said she made a lot of self-discoveries during her time with the Peace Corps and enjoyed the impact of her humanitarian work on the community.

"The work you did was very valuable to folks ... because you made a real big difference just by being there," she said.

For now, Jemison is concentrating on introducing advanced technologies to developing countries, an effort not made by many due to a "failure of imagination," she claims.

Many cutting edge technology can be the most beneficial to developing countries, Jemison said -- citing solar energy and malarial vaccines as examples -- but not much research has been devoted to integrating advanced technologies into the third world.

She attributed her unique set of experiences and skills to allowing her to make these kinds of connections.

Growing Up

As a child in the 1960s, the twin influences of space exploration and political activism set the stage for the success of Jemison's later achievements, defying any racial prejudice she faced at the time.

"I wasn't people's idea of the next generation's scientist or astronaut," she said. "But the reality was, I didn't really care -- because I saw myself as that."

Jemison encourages people to rise above barriers of prejudice and to grow and develop their skills.

We should be "trying to move things forward, and not being confined or restrained by societal expectations, especially when society's expectations limit your contribution and possibilities."

"I think we all have a responsibility to society to use our talents," she said. "We need to acknowledge [that] though. Many times people don't acknowledge that we're responsible -- that we have roles to play in society."

Both family and public elementary schooling were positive influences during Jemison's childhood, which she described as being "wonderful."

The youngest of three children, Jemison's parents encouraged her to participate in discussions of current events and politics.

Not surprisingly, Jemison excelled at school, describing herself as one of those children who just loved school.

She noted that the teaching staff at her public school were supportive and inspiring -- a privilege lacking in many of today's public schools.

"The public schools have changed very much between then and now," she said, noting that most teachers then were women, many of whom would have been professionals now, but were limited to being teachers in the 1960s.

"You'd have an incredible amount of energy in those classrooms," she added.

In March of this year, she wrote an autobiography titled "Find Where the Wind Goes" for 14 to 16 year-olds, describing her experiences growing up.

Politics

As a prominent historical figure, Jemison has been encouraged to step into the political arena, notably by "Ms." magazine, who published her name in a list of seven top women for the presidency determined by a public straw poll.

She said she was surprised by the list and did not realize her popularity with the public.

"I don't know" was the answer she finally gave after a thoughtful consideration of whether she would be interested in running for office.

"Certainly when I was in grade school, high school, and college ... I would have considered going into politics," she said. "These days I don't know if I can accomplish more by staying where I am in the private sector."

Seeing the future

Among her projects in the private sector is the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries at Dartmouth College, which is devoted to facilitating research into implementing advanced technologies in less industrialized countries.

"I started the institute here at Dartmouth because I was very excited about how we can use advanced technologies in different places, particularly developing countries."

The institute just sponsored the "S.E.E.ing the Future Conference."

According to Jemison, the conference is one of several initiatives by the National Science Foundation in celebration of its 50th anniversary.

The conference brought together experts across a wide range of disciplines to come up with a framework with which to evaluate public funding for science and technology research.

Citing difficulties in prioritizing research programs, Jemison said, "There needs to be a more stable reason why we choose things."