Mae Jemison: astronaut, STEM advocate & futurist


This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post

Mae Jemison made history in 1992 when she rocketed into orbit aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavor, becoming the first African-American woman to go into space. And while the physician-turned-astronaut left the space agency the following year, she hasn’t abandoned her interest in spaceflight or in science more generally.

Jemison, 58, has become an outspoken proponent of diversity in science, technology, engineering and math education, arguing that it’s “bulltwinky” to suggest that women and minorities aren’t good enough to make it in those fields.

She doesn’t just talk STEM — she lives it. Jemison is heading up the 100 Year Starship program, which aims to develop the technologies that will enable human interstellar travel. In addition, she’s working as a spokesperson for Bayer’s Making Science Make Sense initiative, which fosters science literacy among students through hands-on demonstrations and volunteer speakers. And she’s helped publicize the results of Bayer’s Facts of Science Education survey, which she hopes will help move STEM education forward.

Jemison recently spoke with The Huffington Post about the origins of her interest in space, the surprising twists and turns of her career and why she’ll never fulfill her dream of being a singer.

Did you always dream of being an astronaut?

I’m going to say no, but not because of the reason you think. I always assumed I’d go into space, but I did not assume I’d have to be a crew member … When I was growing up, during the Apollo era, I thought that by the time I was old enough to have a job like that, I’d just be a scientist working on Mars. I didn’t dream I’d go to space — I assumed I would, which sounds a little arrogant, especially growing up in the ‘60s as a young girl, a young African-American, a person of color.

Why would I just assume? I just thought the universe, the world, was going to figure this out, and that women could do all these things. There was a Russian woman who went up, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963. I never had doubt that women could do any of this stuff.

You seem hesitant to use the word ‘dream.’

I think it’s overused. Dreams have an ethereal quality to them, as though we don’t really know we can make them happen. Some things are more concrete than that. I always dreamed I could sing like Shirley Bassey, and that’s not happening, I don’t have even the start of a wonderful singing voice. I can sing loud, but Shirley Bassey is wonderful. So I always assumed I had the skill set to do many different things. I think of it as, “This is what I want to do.” I am careful about using that word ‘dream’ because it implies this is something you can’t necessarily make happen. So have big thoughts, have big ambitions.

Growing up, who were your role models?

We learn from everybody, whether we call him or her a role model or not, even if that person is not a positive role model. You may learn procrastination from somebody as you’re growing up. The folks who influenced me most in terms of my behavior and things like that were my parents and my schoolteachers. People that I worked with in labs, dance instructors — oh my God, the work ethic and imagination of dance instructors and social scientists. They were the ones that probably influenced me the most.

In terms of space, there were really cool people that went into space, but here’s the thing: I would have wanted to go into space if there had never ever been anybody of any kind in space … I knew who the women and the African-Americans that had been to space were, I knew [NASA astronaut] John Young, and certainly I was very impressed with them. But I would have applied. It didn’t matter.

Did anyone discourage you from applying to the space program?

I didn’t run around telling people, “I’m going to apply to be an astronaut.” That’s my business. Why would you share what you want to do with every ancillary person that may or may not tell you to do this? I probably got more discouragement when I worked in a Cambodian refugee camp.

How did you come to work in Cambodia?

In medical school, in the late 1970s, early 1980s, as the Khmer Rouge were being run out of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, there were all these refugees coming into Thailand. My medical school staffed a facility, and one of the deals was that fourth-year medical students could come. So I was in a place where there were refugees coming in, still just off the border with skirmishes going on. My mother was uncomfortable with me going into that environment — more around that, where you could see an active problem, than the astronaut program.

As we strive for an extraordinary tomorrow, we create a better world today. As we look at building the capabilities for sustaining human travel outside the solar system we’ll find solutions for some of the most pressing science and technology and cultural problems that we face on Earth today.

You left NASA in 1993. How did you feel about that transition?

One of the things I think is really important is to have new experiences and talk about new experiences. What I found is, a lot of what I learned about space exploration, I look back on those technologies and I think, “Wow, they would be really great and helpful for the developing world.”

When I left NASA, I left because I wanted to work on how to use advanced technologies on helping developing countries and sustainable technology design. That’s where my past experiences blend. And it’s important to have different disciplines and be wide open to thinking about the world differently.

Do you agree with those who say the U.S. has a STEM problem — that not enough young people are pursuing educations and careers in science, technology, engineering and math? If so, what should be done to remedy the situation?

As far as the U.S. is concerned, we have a problem with exploiting, developing the full range of talent that we have in this country, and this is particularly true in the science, math and engineering fields. It happens because many of the people in those fields don’t recognize the talent of the full range of women and the full range of minorities as important.

When I started with the Bayer program 20 years ago, there was less recognition of science and science careers and jobs. Over the years, if you look at the [Facts of Science Education] survey, parents and teachers recognize the importance of it, which is great. People even know the word STEM, and there was a whole phrase coined! People recognize the importance of hands-on education. It’s not about just drilling and saying, “Memorize the periodic table.” It’s the hands-on engagement that makes the difference.

What do you think explains the lack of diversity in STEM?

Girls do as well as, or better than, boys all the way through high school. That’s fact. They go into college wanting to go into STEM fields, but graduate in lower numbers percentage-wise. The survey asked professors about this. A lot of the professors at these research universities say they recognize and consider the women the best-prepared to graduate in a STEM field. Yet they were okay with the women not graduating because they felt that maybe the women couldn’t cut it, that they weren’t tough enough. It was bulltwinky.

And we know it’s nonsense because at Harvey Mudd College, Maria Klawe, the president, was able to — in just five years — triple the number of women graduating in computer sciences. They changed the way the courses were taught, but they didn’t make the work any less. They separated the kids who quote-unquote know computer science and try to lord it over folks, but they all had to be in the same place at the end of the year. They brought mentors and images, and guess what? It also helped males.

I don’t know if it’s even advice, but it’s a way of living: Just find the humor in stuff.

What advice do you have for STEM teachers?

Before I started working with Bayer, I was working on a program — a camp called The Earth We Share — and it was for kids ages 12 to 16. That the rough age where it’s like, “What’s the role I’m going to play?” And people start looking at each other and [saying], “What am I supposed to act like?” And you see girls dropping out from wanting to be in science. But you know what? We had more girls applying than boys, and the girls ran the place. I was like, “Okay, you need to let the guys do some stuff!”

I think this is the whole idea of public figures, and maybe it’s because I was close enough to them to actually be a role model, they were like, “Okay, this is Dr. J’s camp. I don’t have to let go of my assertiveness.” It was just amazing. So interesting, because the girls had no compunction about being in charge. That had to do with people’s expectations and attitudes.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

I have no single piece because each one is episodic. One that’s not really great for one situation is perfect for another. But the one that I’ve always found helpful … I don’t know if it’s even advice, but it’s a way of living: Just find the humor in stuff. Stuff is really funny. You can take yourself so seriously and so dramatically. Go ahead and mope, you got one day to mope, or two days to mope. But then look for the humor in it, it’s kind of funny. I’m not talking about loss and death, but some of the things where you’re like, “That was just crazy” are pretty funny.

What are the goals of the 100 Year Starship program?

The idea behind the 100 Year Starship program is this: As we strive for an extraordinary tomorrow, we create a better world today. As we look at building the capabilities for sustaining human travel outside the solar system, we’ll find solutions for some of the most pressing science and technology and cultural problems that we face on Earth today … The further and further away from the Earth [you] travel, the more self-sufficient you have to be, and the more you have to think about the whole thing differently. When you do that, you bring other perspectives to bear.

Our proposal to DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] was, “An inclusive, audacious journey transforms life here on earth and beyond.” The first word is “inclusive” and that comes from the perspective I bring. I know that we need a full range of talent across not only disciplines, but also ethnicity, gender and geography, to really deal with this. 100 Year Starship is about building a global ambition to do bigger things.

They felt that maybe the women couldn’t cut it, that they weren’t tough enough. It was bulltwinky.

Which of your other projects are you excited about now?

The work that I do with Bayer, I think it’s really important about public-private partnerships — corporations going in not just to sell their product, but also to support the next generation of scientists. I wouldn’t be here without my third-grade science teacher or my sixth-grade teacher. They both had the latitude to let me do different things so they could keep me interested. The Thank You campaign Bayer is doing allowed me to thank Mrs. Miller, and she got to come to my launch. She was one of the people that knew I was crazy about space. It helps me as much as it helps them, to express that appreciation.