This is the twenty-first entry in the series Honoring Black History.
About a year ago, I picked up a copy of Mae Among the Stars for Oscar. The book told an abbreviated story of Mae Carol Jemison, the first woman of color in space. The book itself is a little formulaic and simplistic, but so are most children’s books to be honest. But credit where credit’s due, it introduced me to Dr. Mae Jemison, who I hadn’t heard of previously.
I was never much of a “space” kid, to be honest. I was a nerd for sure, and into science, but I always gravitated more toward biology than physics, which aligned with my interest in fantasy over science fiction (if that makes sense). All of that is to say that I don’t really remember who America’s astronauts have been beyond Neil Armstrong and John Glenn (and on a good memory day Buzz Aldrin and Sally Ride). So I guess it’s not surprising that Dr. Jemison’s wasn’t a name I was familiar with.
Anyway, after picking up this book and reading the mini-bio about Dr. Jemison, I got interested in learning more about her. The book does a good job of demonstrating her childhood passion for science and astronomy, but it totally jumps from her childhood to her being an astronaut, completely skipping over some of her other impressive accomplishments.
Mae Jemison graduated high school in 1973 at 16 (!) and then went to Stamford University, where he received degrees in chemical engineering and African American studies. From there, she went to Cornell to study medicine. She was very interested in international medicine and, while at Cornell, she spent a summer volunteering at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand. Then she went to Kenya to continue studying. After she graduated from medical school and practicing as a general practitioner in the States, Dr. Jemison joined the Peace Corps as a medical officer and returned to Africa.
While in the Peace Corps, she worked in Sierra Leone and Liberia. There she taught and conducted several research projects in concert with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, most notably helping to research a hepatitis B vaccine.
After two and a half years in Africa, Dr. Jemison returned to the States and decided to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. She applied to the astronaut program in 1986, but the Challenger explosion delayed selections that year. She re-applied in 1987 and was one of the 15 (of 2,000!) applicants chosen to enter the astronaut training program. Five years later, she became the first woman of color in space, where she (no surprise here) conducted more medical research, including a study of bone cells in zero gravity.
Dr. Mae Jemison’s life has been a pretty interesting one, with lots of twists and turns. It’s hard to find a truly detailed account of her story, but given when she grew up—and the fact that not much has changed in terms of treatment of black women in America since then—I’m certain she’s faced a ridiculous number of obstacles along that path. First, in becoming woman in science—let alone a woman of color in science. Then in becoming a doctor. And finally in her pursuit of becoming an astronaut.
Dr. Jemison’s resilience and persistence is impressive. Her accomplishments have no doubt paved the way for the next generation of women of color who want to claim their rightful place in the world of STEM. Let’s welcome them!
Here’s to you Dr. Jemison!
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