After Making History In Space, Mae Jemison Works To Prime Future Scientists

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At the Oscars this weekend, one spotlight will shine on African-American women in the space race, thanks to the movie Hidden Figures, which is nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture.

Mae Jemison made history in this field as the first African-American woman in space, as part of the crew on Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992.

Jemison tells NPR's Ari Shapiro she welcomes this new interest in women and minorities who broke boundaries in space because those people were previously excluded from the narrative.

"Well, I think it's one of those things that really needs to be done," Jemison says. "And this is because people of all types have made contributions across the spectrum of the sciences, across the spectrum of space exploration, and they have been left out many times, purposefully."

Interview Highlights

On being the first African-American woman in space

I always think of it as like, "What do you do with your place at the table?" If you act just like everyone else, what difference does it make that you're there?

And so for me — having grown up on the South Side of Chicago going to public schools, having been a medical doctor, having worked in Cambodian refugee camps as well as being an engineer as well as being someone who was very versed in dance and the arts — yes, I'm supposed to bring those perspectives to bear on the questions that we ask about space exploration.

How do we get more people involved? How do we understand how the various technologies can help benefit people across the world? Those were important things for me, so I was aware of that, yet at the same time, you have a job to do.

On encouraging more women and minorities to enter math and science

I think that there are really important things that we have to do with students to get them to succeed in science, to go on and stay with careers. And that includes the idea of being exposed to something.

So if you know that those things exist, it makes it easier for you to get involved. For example, it helps to know what an engineer is. It helps to know what a biotechnician is, so you're not afraid of it.

Then, it's experience. When you do hands-on science, you learn to — you learn about electricity by wiring a flashlight. And then it's expectation. And that expectation is, we should expect our kids to succeed and to achieve. Children live up or down to our expectations. And so, I always call it the three E's: experience, expectation and exposure.

On why efforts to diversify the field have not been more successful

So the efforts to diversify the pool, very often, are couched in things like, "We want them to behave and act like we do." Or there are people who get degrees, and then they're not included because ... it's a bevy of things. There's no one single thing.

Let me give you the results of a Bayer Corp. survey as part of its Making Science Make Sense program. They surveyed women and minority members of the American Chemical Society. And what was found is that the place where these people had the most discouragement from studying science was in college by a college professor. Over 40 percent of them had that happen to them.

I want to make sure that that future that we're creating is one that is the best it can be for people around the world, and also one that includes the full range of our talent and our skills — and you know, gender and ethnicity, geography — to solving the world's problems.

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A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Space Shuttle Endeavour as Endeavor.