Dr. Mae C. Jemison: Astronaut and Visionary

Not Limited by the Imagination of Others

Pictures of Mae Jemison
Pictures of Mae Jemison - Technicians assist STS-47 MS Jemison prior to JSC bailout training. NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC)

NASA astronauts have a love of science and adventure, and are highly trained in their fields. Dr. Mae C. Jemison is no exception. She's a chemical engineer, scientist, physician, teacher, astronaut, and actor. Over the course of her career, she has worked in engineering and medical research, and was invited to be part of a Star Trek: Next Generation episode, becoming the first NASA astronaut to also serve in the fictional Starfleet. In addition to her extensive background in science, Dr. Jemison is well-versed in African and African-American studies, speaks fluent Russian, Japanese, and Swahili, as well as English and is trained in dance and choreography.

Mae Jemison's Early Life and Career

Dr. Jemison was born in Alabama in 1956 and grew up in Chicago. After graduating from Morgan Park High School at the age of 16, she went on to attend Stanford University, where she earned a BS in Chemical Engineering. In 1981, she received a Doctor of Medicine degree from Cornell University. While enrolled at Cornell Medical School, Dr. Jemison traveled to Cuba, Kenya and Thailand, providing primary medical care to the people living in these nations. 

After graduating from Cornell, Dr. Jemison served in the Peace Corps, where she supervised the pharmacy, laboratory, medical staff as well as provided medical care, wrote self-care manuals, developed and implemented guidelines for health and safety issues. Also working in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) she helped with research for various vaccines.

Life as an Astronaut

Dr. Jemison returned to the U.S., and worked with CIGNA Health Plans of California as a general practitioner. She enrolled in graduate classes in engineering and applied to NASA for admission to the astronaut program. She joined the corps in 1987 and successfully completed her astronaut training, becoming the fifth black astronaut and the first black female astronaut in NASA history. She was the science mission specialist on STS-47, a cooperative mission between the U.S. and Japan. Dr. Jemison was a co-investigator on the bone cell research experiment flown on the mission.

Dr. Jemison left NASA in 1993. She is currently a professor at Cornell University and is a proponent of science education in the schools, particularly encouraging minority students to pursue STEM careers. She founded the Jemison Group to research and develop technology for daily life, and is heavily involved in the 100 Year Starship Project. She also created BioSentient Corp, a company aimed at developing portable technology to monitor the nervous system, with an eye toward treating a variety of related disorders and illnesses.

Dr. Mae Jemison was the host and a technical consultant to "World of Wonders" series produced by GRB Entertainment and seen weekly on the Discovery Channel. She has earned many awards, including the Essence Award (1988), Gamma Sigma Gamma Women of the Year (1989), Honorary Doctorate of Science, Lincoln College, PA (1991), Honorary Doctor of Letters, Winston-Salem, NC (1991), McCall's 10 Outstanding Women for the 90's (1991), Pumpkin Magazine's (a Japanese Monthly) One of the Women for the Coming New Century (1991), Johnson Publications Black Achievement Trailblazers Award (1992), Mae C. Jemison Science and Space Museum, Wright Jr. College, Chicago, (dedicated 1992), Ebony's 50 Most Influential women (1993), Turner Trumpet Award (1993), and Montgomery Fellow, Dartmouth (1993), Kilby Science Award (1993), Induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame (1993), People magazine's 1993 "50 Most Beautiful People in the World"; CORE Outstanding Achievement Award; and the National Medical Association Hall of Fame.

Dr. Mae Jemison is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Science; Association of Space Explorers: Honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.; board of Directors of Scholastic, Inc.; Board of Directors of Houston's UNICEF; Board of Trustees Spelman College; Board of Directors Aspen Institute; board of Directors Keystone Center; and the National Research Council Space Station Review Committee. She has presented at the UN and internationally on the uses of space technology, was the subject of a PBS Documentary, The New Explorers; Endeavor by Kurtis Productions.

She has often told students not to let anyone stand in the way of getting what they want. “I had to learn very early not to limit myself due to others’ limited imaginations," she said. "I have learned these days never to limit anyone else due to my limited imagination.”

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.