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Dr. Mae C. Jemison





Year of Birth / Death

b. 1956


Medical School

Cornell University Weill Medical College


Geography

LOCATION
Texas


Career Path

General medicine
Dr. Mae C. Jemison



Milestones

YEAR
1992
ACHIEVEMENT
Dr. Mae Jemison was the first African American woman astronaut to go into space.


Inspiration

I was excited about the world around me.

In kindergarten my teacher asked me—actually asked the whole class—now what do you want to be when you grow up? And I said, "I want to be a scientist." And she looked at me and she said, "Don't you mean a nurse?" Now clearly, there is no issue with being nurse. But the issue back then was, is that's the only thing she could see a little girl growing up to do, that had something to do with sciences. So she was trying to help guide me and counsel me, and... as to what was possible. But I really just put my hands on my hips, and I said, "No, I mean a scientist."

Because I was excited about the world around me. When I grew up, we did all kinds of things. I would go hunting and fishing with my father and my mother. We'd go out fishing in the summertime, and I loved it! I loved playing with the worms and the fish, and learning all about them. My uncle, Uncle Louis, we'd look up at the stars and he would tell me they were really suns; they just were so small because they were so many miles away. He even discussed things with me about me about Einstein's theory of relativity, at 6-7-8 years old, so I always assumed that I was supposed to be able to understand these things. It wasn't something that was outside of the ordinary for me.

You know, when you talk about science, it's very hard for me to tell you as a child, what drew me to it. But I think now as an adult looking back, it was the creativity that drew me to it. The possibilities. Understanding what was going on in the world around me.



Biography

Scientist, chemical engineer, physician, teacher, and astronaut, Dr. Mae Jemison has been a strong advocate for science and technology. She has applied her medical experience to the service of her country, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and then as space shuttle astronaut. Dr. Jemison actively inspires and encourages young people to pursue careers in science and medicine, and she has worked to advocate gender, ethnic, and social diversity in the sciences.

Born in Decatur, Alabama in 1956, Mae Jemison was raised in Chicago, Illinois. She was the youngest of three children of Charlie and Dorothy Jemison. Her father was a maintenance worker and carpenter and her mother was a teacher. Jemison's older sister Ada Sue is also a physician. Jemison's interest in science started at an early age when an uncle encouraged her curiosity about astronomy, anthropology, and archaeology.

Jemison won a scholarship to Stanford University at age 16, graduating in 1977 with a degree in chemical engineering. She also fulfilled the degree requirements for a B.A. in African American Studies. She received her medical degree from Cornell University in 1981. During medical school she worked as a volunteer in Cuba, Kenya, and a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand.

After graduating from Cornell Medical School, Dr. Jemison spent the next year doing a one-year rotating internship at Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. Knowing she wanted to work in the developing world, and ultimately work on biomedical engineering research, she applied to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and became a medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia from 1983 to 1985.

Returning home from the Peace Corps, Dr. Jemison accepted a position as a general practitioner with CIGNA Health Plans of California. Despite all she had already accomplished, Dr. Jemison was intrigued by learning more. "I was always aware of space exploration. I followed the Gemini, the Mercury and the Apollo programs, I had books about them, and I always assumed I would go into space," Jemison recalled. "And that's despite the fact that there were no women, and it was all white males—and in fact, I thought that was one of the dumbest things in the world, because I used to always worry, believe it or not as a little girl, I was like: What would aliens think of humans? You know, these are the only humans?"

While at CIGNA, Dr Jemison began taking graduate engineering classes and applied to NASA for admission to the astronaut program. She was accepted as one of fifteen astronaut candidates in 1987. She completed her training in 1988, and served in 1992 as a mission specialist on the space shuttle Endeavour. At 36 years old, she became the first African American woman to go into space. Dr. Jemison was the science mission specialist on the flight. During the shuttle mission she conducted experiments in life sciences, material sciences, and was co-investigator in the bone cell research experiment.

In March 1993, she founded the Jemison Group, Inc., her private company that aims to "research, develop, and implement advanced technologies suited to the social, political, cultural, and economic context of the individual, especially for the developing world." Jemison Group projects have included a satellite-based telecommunications system to improve health in West African, and consulting on the design and implementation of solar thermal electricity generation systems for developing countries.

Dr. Jemison, who enjoyed watching Star Trek as a child, has even appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Building on her real-life space experiences, in 1994 she founded The Earth We Share, an international science camp for students aged 12 to 16.

She taught environmental studies at Dartmouth College from 1995 to 2002, and is currently an at-large professor at Cornell University. Dr. Jemison lives in Houston, Texas with her cats, Sneeze and Little Mama. Her hobbies include jazz dance, skiing, photography, and studying foreign languages. She speaks fluent Russian, Japanese, and Swahili.

Dr. Jemison has received numerous honors and awards. She received the Essence Award in 1988. She was awarded the Gamma Sigma Gamma Woman of the Year in 1989, and was named one of McCall's 10 Outstanding Women for the 90's in 1991. Jemison was awarded Johnson Publications Black Achievement Trailblazers Award in 1992. She inspired the Mae C. Jemison Science and Space Museum at Wright Junior College in Chicago, which was dedicated in 1992. She was named to Ebony's Most Influential Women list in 1993, and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.



Question and Answer

Q2. What was my biggest obstacle?

I think growing up in the United States, of course, a woman, a black person is discriminated against. You know, there is no way out of that. The issue is, is what do you do with the obstacles that people put in front of you. You can buy into them, or you can give the obstacles back to that person. It doesn't mean that it's easy, but you can go around and you can create another path sometimes. But if you focus in on only that obstacle, then it's very hard to move forward, because that's where your attention will be drawn.

Now that doesn't mean that society is absolved from it's responsibility to remove those obstacles and those obstacle makers. But it does mean that in some sense, you have a little bit more control over it.

When people talk about the space program, they ask me, "Was it the toughest job I ever had; was it the most difficult," and it wasn't. Probably being a Peace Corps doctor was the most difficult job, because I was on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and I was responsible for people's lives and their health. I was the person that was there. Period. And it required a very wide range of skills, and learning how to keep my own health together, as well as paying attention to other folks.

Q3. How do I make a difference?

As a Peace Corps Area Medical Officer I learned a lot about developing countries, about health care in those situations; and as an astronaut I learned an awful lot about remote sensing satellite telecommunications and all of these nice things... and so I could put them together. And that really set the tone for a lot of the work that I did later on, which was looking at: how do you use advanced technologies in developing countries. How do you blend social issues with technology design.

Q4. How has my career evolved over time?

I was always aware of space exploration. I followed the Gemini, the Mercury, and the Apollo programs, I had books about them and I always assumed I would go into space. Not necessarily as an astronaut; I thought because we were on the moon when I was 11 or 12 years old, that we would be going to Mars—I'd be going to work on Mars as a scientist.

And that's despite the fact that there were no women, and it was all white males—and in fact, I thought that was one of the dumbest things in the world, because I used to always worry, believe it or not as a little girl, I was like: What would aliens think of humans? You know, these are the only humans?

When I went to school I wanted to major in Biomedical Engineering, and back then there was really no course curriculum in Biomedical Engineering. So I was steered toward the Chemical Engineering school. There was a professor there who was doing lots of work on blood flow—how do you write an engineering equation about blood flow? Or how do you look at different kinds of polymers that are used in biological materials or systems? And so I ended up going into Chemical Engineering because of that. Because I could get a classical engineering degree, and then I could follow it up with more medicine and more biology.

Then it was very interesting, because I got some of the best counseling advice I've ever gotten. One was from an M.D. that I went to go to one summer when I was ill, I had an illness, and he told me: You know, if you want to do biomedical engineering and you want to run your own projects, then it would be really great for you to have an M.D.. Because sometimes M.D.s are difficult to get along with if you don't have a medical degree.

I was told that also by an electrical engineering professor who happened to have an M.D. as well, that it would behoove me to get an M.D. And you get to also learn all about the body. You learn about the therapies that you're going to put into play. Because while you're doing biomedical engineering, that is, designing things to work in the body, to monitor the body, replacement parts and things like that, it's important to understand what therapeutic environment they're going to operate in. That is what is a patient like? How do people grow from day to day. You can't just build this little piece of equipment, and then not figure out whether it's going to be useful to a person. Will the person actually use it. How is it going to change their lifestyle. So being in medicine was going to be very important, so that's how I ended up going to medical school.

The work that I'm doing now, I have a company called BioSentient Corporation, and it's a medical devices company, and we design medical equipment to monitor the autonomic nervous system. To do ambulatory monitoring—meaning that people can walk around, and measure their autonomic nervous system.

I'm also very excited about the work that I do with the International Science Camp—The Earth We Share—which is part of the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, and that foundation was named after my mother, who was a teacher in the Chicago public school system for over twenty-five years; and The Earth We Share, which we call TEWS, really is about building science literacy. And science literacy is not about people becoming professional scientists, but rather being able to read an article in the newspaper about the health, the environment and figure out how to vote responsibly on it.