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 MarsI'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 malesand 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 flowhow 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 monitoringmeaning 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 CampThe Earth We Sharewhich 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.