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Sunday, December 10, 2023

A talk with Dr. Mae Jemison

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Dr. Mae Jemison has gone to places few women (or even men, for that matter) have gone before — space. In 1992, she became the first Black woman to visit space, and today the physician, engineer and entrepreneur is influencing young people to find their own path to infinity and beyond. 

Last month, Jemison visited the campuses of IUPUI and IU Bloomington to speak with students about innovation in health care, the impact of space on our daily lives and more. Last fall, she was named a leader-in-residence at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, serving as its Poling Chair of Business and Government, for this academic year. Though she is a highly sought after speaker and educator, Jemison said her visit was of a more collaborative nature, as she wanted to hear from students directly and engage with them. 

“I’m getting to learn with them! We actually get motivated by things we investigate ourselves, so I wanted to work with them to investigate something,” she said.

The Recorder was able to catch up with Jemison via phone during her time here. Read on for more of that conversation:


Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper: It is so great that you’re here to work with these students. What are some of the things they’ve shared with you? 

Jemison: One student said that if she’d known all the things space has done for us and all the potential it has, she would’ve paid more attention to her science classes in high school, because now she figures out and understands why these things are important. In terms of some of the things that they’re sharing about impact, of course … the idea of sustainability (came up), because when you go into space, you have to be somewhat autonomous, you have to be able to reuse your components and things. That ability to be sustainable is applicable to life here on earth. Some of them talk about, how do we see ourselves as a single species? If we start to see ourselves as a single species, as we go to other planets, it will help us to think about how we’re operating on this land. All of this actually comes from work that I do with an organization called 100 Year Starship.


100 Year Starship, that sounds fascinating. Tell us more about that. 

100 Year Starship is a global initiative to make sure we have the capability for human travel beyond our solar system within 100 years. It’s a long time frame and a really audacious project, but the reason is because everything that we need to survive as a species on this planet, we have to accomplish here if we’re going to go to another star system. These days we’re doing things very incrementally and short term, so how do we come up with something really big that can help us to survive now? The students interestingly thought that people right now are apathetic and they don’t necessarily see a brighter future for humanity. So how do we see that brighter future? By giving ourselves something bigger than us to achieve. 


A lot of parents, school systems and administrators have paid more attention to the importance of STEM education in recent years. Why do you believe it is important for young people to continuously be engaged and exposed to those things? 

I would say the issue is not getting children to be more involved but to stop discouraging them. It’s the way we set up the proposition that’s the problem. … Kids come out of the chute excited about the world around them. They’re picking up the bugs, the snails … they’re trying to understand the world we live in, and it’s very much experiential and experimental science. They want to understand the world around them, whether it’s the social sciences or the physical sciences. But what happens is the adults, we push our phobias onto the kids and we discourage them from exploring, because it’s difficult for us in terms of our teaching methods. We say, “Oh we put you in front of a computer, so we’ve done the science,” when science is three-dimensional. It’s touching, it’s feeling. It’s really much more than that, which means that adults need to rethink the way we teach science. In terms of the impact, we have to understand that it’s for everyone. It has an influence across the board. I think it’s about allowing that exploration.


On the topic of representation, there is a narrative that there aren’t enough women and people of color involved in science. What are your thoughts on the issue? 

We need to do a story that’s much more inclusive. Women and people of color have been involved despite of, not because of. So it’s really just giving that full range of exposure, and it’s not just for the kids; it’s also for the gatekeepers. Because if you think, “Oh, a young Black girl can’t do mathematics,” you’re not going to give her the opportunity to and encourage those skill sets. So it’s not just for the kids because they don’t know any better. It’s for the adults who mess it all up. As usual.


What else are you working on? What can our readers look out for? 

I’ve been working in science literacy since 1994. I put together a science camp program called The Earth We Share, really pushing on this idea of, this is something that’s important for our future, and 100 Year Starship is really about innovation. How do we come up with those radical kinds of technology? We like to say, space isn’t just for rocket scientists and billionaires. Everyone is involved, and we all benefit.

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