Dr. Mae Jemison, The first woman of color to enter space, promoted diversity in the STEM fields Monday evening, saying that minority groups in the science fields will be the ones to shape the future of space exploration and innovation.
The astronaut, physician and science advocate was NU’s keynote speaker for the annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy. According to NU’s recap of the event, nearly a thousand people witnessed Jemison’s address in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, where she called on her audience to honor King’s dream through action.
“Our MLK legacy is to acknowledge, develop, and use our talents and skills to effect a positive, beneficial change in this world,” Jemison said.
For Jemison, this change can occur if women and minorities are better represented in the STEM fields, where they are underrepresented despite making up two-thirds of the population. She spoke about how the next generation of space travel, specifically sending humans to a new star system, will present problems that current researchers cannot solve, but minorities can provide a more diverse array of perspectives in the sciences that could lead to the solutions that push humanity beyond our solar system.
“No one group of people can do this,” she said. “Everybody’s looked up at the stars and wondered what they were… perhaps that can be one of the unifying things that helps us think about ourselves as earthlings.”
But for space exploration to be this unifier, Jemison said that minorities need “exposure, experience and expectations” to show them they have a place in the sciences. She described growing up in what she called a time of unlimited potential, and how the coincidence of early space exploration and the Civil Rights Movement inspired her to explore the stars. Jemison was the first Black woman admitted to NASA’s astronaut training program in 1987 and flew aboard the Endeavor in 1992.
She referenced Black the characters Nyota Uhura and Geordi LaForge of Star Trek who taught minorities in the 60s and 90s that they had a place in STEM, and said the women of Hidden Figures could inspire today’s young people to do the same. However, Jemison also said that even with media representation of minorities in science, STEM fields are proliferated with older, white men and couched in gender norms that bar women and minorities from entering those disciplines.
“It’s great for young girls to see [Hidden Figures],” Jemison said. “But it’s also important for the white, male professors to see it. I say that because they’re gatekeepers to what we do.”
Christen Johnson, a Medill alum, said that she decided to hear Jemison speak because she remembered learning about Jemison in elementary school and had recently watched Hidden Figures. She said Jemison’s words inspired her to be impactful and dynamic in whatever she chooses to do in her life regardless of the obstacles in her way.
“She didn’t feel like she had to sacrifice anything, she just did what she wanted to do,” Johnson said. “Do what you feel you want to do, and do it well.”