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Mae Jemison Inspires Campus

If you were to ask Mae Jemison about her long and multi-faceted career, being the first African American woman in space probably wouldn’t be the crux of her answer. It certainly wasn’t the topic of her talk given in Cox Auditorium this past March. Rather than focus on a singular accomplishment, Jemison pulled from her wealth of experience to communicate a message of interconnection.

“We have to use the full range of our talent,” she advised the audience, bursting with students, faculty and staff, and local community members. And if anything can be said of Mae Jemison, it’s that her well of talent runs deep.

A degree in chemical engineering from Stanford, a medical degree from Cornell, and three years of service as a doctor for the Peace Corps are just the beginning of her long, influential career and her extensive accomplishments. After a stint at NASA, where she logged 190 hours in space and orbited the earth 127 times, Jemison began to explore what using the full range of her talents meant to her. The multi-lingual engineer founded a technology research company—the Jemison Group; established a nonprofit educational foundation named for her mother, Dorothy Jemison; served as professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth; authored several children’s books; and made an appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Despite an expansive career, Jemison’s directive has always been connection and humanity, best seen in her current undertaking, The 100 Year Starship project. The project has set its sights on interstellar travel, and Mae Jemison is bringing everyone along. She described the project to Cox auditorium as an “inclusive, audacious journey” that “transforms life here on earth and beyond.” But to make such a daring dream possible, Jemison asserts that it needs to include “the whole thing. Not just some people.”

Our biggest stumbling block, Jemison cautions, is our lack of interest in connection. “The challenge of human interstellar travel mirrors the challenges that we face in the world today,” she says. “Diversity of knowledge, resiliency, and a willingness to try things differently will get us where we’re trying to go.” As someone who aims to foster a culture of inclusion across ethnicities, gender, age, and disciplines, Jemison encouraged members of the audience to look for answers in their neighbors. “Can I use my place at the table to make sure that people who aren’t always allowed at the table are involved?”

“And what do you do with your place at the table?” Jemison asked the auditorium. “Use it to bring your experiences to bear.”