Mae Jemison ’77, a physician and the first African-American woman to travel in space, spoke at the St. Clair Drake Memorial Lecture Monday afternoon. Jemison studied African and African American Studies (AAAS) under Drake, who founded the AAAS program. She honored her mentor by recounting the impact that his major had on her career.
Jemison, who also majored in chemical engineering, recalled feeling the pressures of being a “colored woman” in a science and engineering field.
“I would look up at the stars and assumed that I would go into space, but I also remembered the National Guard marching behind my home following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Jemison said. “But all around me I saw this explosion of new ideas and possibilities, a world that was changing rapidly.”
Although it was less overt at the Farm, Jemison said she sometimes experienced isolation in her youth, feeling like an outsider among her peers.
“I was sitting up in the front row, and people weren’t as enthusiastic to see me, but I wouldn’t leave,” she said. “I stayed in the class. I may have floated back to the back row, but I didn’t leave.”
In addition to her engineering coursework, Jemison fit in several classes in Swahili and AAAS, which gave her the confidence to excel. This training in the social sciences also changed the way she thought, teaching her to ask questions in a different way.
“There’s a confidence about knowing about yourself and people that’s really important,” she said. “It gave me the confidence to know that every group of people had made contributions to this world, whether it’s in the sciences [or] social sciences.”
“You have to believe in yourself first,” Jemison added. “You have to believe that you have a right to be involved. That’s what AAAS helped me to know.”
April House ’11 brought several of her young children along to the Drake Memorial talk.
“As a member of the [AAAS] department, I go every year, but I really wanted my children to see Mae Jamison,” House said. “She’s someone I’ve long admired. Being able to see her speak with my children is an unparalleled experience.”
House’s nine-year-old daughter, Alexis Stull, sat in the audience holding a book about Jemison.
“It was a really cool talk,” Stull said. “I’m really interested, because I’m going to be a doctor when I grow up, and I thought it would be really cool to be an astronaut and doctor like her.”
Following her remarks, Jemison fielded questions from the audience. Many asked about Jemison’s work promoting science and technology education, which has been one of her longstanding passions.
This passion grew from her work in AAAS, which led her to realize that “we can’t solve any world problems unless we have everybody at the same table.”
That belief motivated Jemison to start The Earth We Share, an international science camp that invites students and teachers to strengthen their science education.
“How can I expect the world to go on if we’re not educating the next great generation?” she said. “Whether the future ends up like Star Trek or Blade Runner, it’s our choice, and we have to take that.”