Mae Jemison had the crowd rolling in laughter and crying from happiness with her "Star Trek" puns, love of her cats and above all: incredible genius.
Jemison’s lecture “Daring Makes a Difference” was part of the Extraordinary Women Lecture series presented by Auburn University Outreach and Tuskegee Auburn Women’s Leadership Alliance Symposium.
Jemison was introduced by the Auburn University Mosaic Theater Company, which introduced the lecture by acting out her many achievements.
Jemison was sure to include a generous amount of humor throughout her talk.
“Well, that was a great performance,” Jemison said. “They basically acted out everything I was going to say.”
Her lecture covered multiple themes, including science literacy, expectations, inclusion, empowerment, ambient belonging — whether or not one belongs in a situation — and genius.
“When I was a little girl, I played with Barbies,” Jemison said. “But I also played with chemistry sets. I always wanted to be an astronaut.”
Jemison grew up in Chicago, Illinois, during segregation and said she was often reminded of her “place” as an African-American female.
“As a little girl, I was excited, and people kept trying to explain to me why women couldn’t go into space,” Jemison said. “I always thought they were full of it.”
Jemison explained the first testing that occurred on women astronauts in the '70s and the changes it made to the field.
“The women tested better than all the men in the isolation tank and endurance,” Jemison said. “In fact, women were originally thought by many doctors to make better astronauts, but of course when they began opening the applications to women and minorities, the first people they chose were men.”
Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel in space when she flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992. Before her flight, she graduated from Stanford University with a degree in chemical engineering, received her M.D. from Cornell University after and joined the Peace Corps for two years. She has also founded numerous foundations and projects dedicated to scientific research and the advancement of science in children’s lives.
“Empowerment comes in three steps,” Jemison said. “First, you have to believe you have something to contribute, then you have to believe you have the right to empowerment, and then you have to do it.”
Jemison spent a great deal lecturing on the importance of empowering children to feel they can accomplish feats in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields.
“Children live up or down to our expectations,” Jemison said. “If we have a school that has no lab equipment, then those children never get the experience and will think we don’t expect them to do well. If we have schools that are so poorly kept that they are afraid to go in them, what underlying message do you think that is sending?”
Crystal Downer, a student in osteopathic medicine, said the lecture was a great reminder of perseverance.
“Just her persistence and her resilience was phenomenal for me,” Downer said. “She had to fight against so much. She was the front-runner for all of us.”
Rakysia Rogers, junior in political science, said she was inspired.
“I’m intending to pursue a degree in law,” Rogers said. “She was encouraging to me to not limit myself and to be confident even when society disagrees with me.”
When a child asked Jemison a question about her space flight, she told the story of her favorite memory.
“The first thing I saw from my window in space was Chicago,” Jemison said. “I’m not kidding. I was instantly reminded of the little smiling girl I once was, and I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.”