You are here

Other people have roadblocks they'd like you to stand around and acknowledge, and if you do you'll be right there with them. You have to walk around the roadblocks, jump over them, break them down ÔÇô but don't stand around playing with them.

Mae Jemison should know. In her career as an engineer, astronaut, scientist, physician, and businesswoman, she's never let roadblocks slow her down. Instead, she's smashed through them to become the first woman of color in space and a leader in medical technology.

These days, the Alabama-born scientist maintains a hectic schedule, running two companies, lecturing to audiences worldwide, and serving as a professor at Cornell University. But she recently made the time to speak with jobpostings magazine about her experiences and share her advice to our readers ÔÇô the leaders of the future.

We have this whole thing about encouraging. But what we have to do is stop discouraging. Every little kid starts out interested in what's going on in the world around them. They're exploring, they're picking up shells and experimenting and wondering how the human body works. But what society does is send out cues that we're not interested in you doing that. So it's discouraging rather than encouraging.

When Mae Jemison climbed aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992, she was fulfilling one of the goals she'd set for herself as a Chicago primary school student. By that time she'd already fulfilled many others: earning an engineering degree at Stanford, graduating as a medical doctor form Cornell, and working in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer.

These achievements prove even more remarkable because of the lack of role models in the early 70s for African-Americans and other minorities interested in a scientific or technological career. It's a problem she admits still exists to this day ÔÇô one she partly attributes to the negative images of minorities in the media. We need to change the images we see on television, says Jemison. As an example, she points to Marc Hannah, a Stanford-trained black engineer who co-founded Silicon Graphics, one of the top computer graphics firms in the country. Doing a story on him instead of 50 Cent would change our idea of what's going on and where folks are supposed to be. I'm not talking about positive images, just real images.

Jemison herself is contributing to the solution. In addition to her space mission and her numerous public appearances, she appeared in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation as Lieutenant Palmer, the first cast member on the series who had ever been in space.

It's a simple answer ÔÇô put your time, energy and resources where you want things to happen. It's not easy because for some reason we've decided we don't have to pay schoolteachers. We can mobilize billions of dollars for a war, but we can't mobilize ten million for a school."

In her senior year of high school, Jemison learned from one of her high school teachers that she needed to know calculus to succeed in engineering. Calculus was not offered at my school or any other Chicago public school at that time. So he took it upon himself to teach us. He'd come in every morning at 7:00 a.m. and we'd do calculus and solid analytic geometry. It made a big difference going to Stanford where so many kids knew calculus. But she acknowledges that many young people ÔÇô particularly those of minority backgrounds ÔÇô are not getting the training they need at the high school level to prepare for science and technology programs in college.

In her view, public schools need to have the resources necessary to provide proper training for higher studies. You have to have chemistry or biology where you actually have wet labs, mix the chemicals together and get burned by hydrochloric acid. You have to go through all of that in order to feel comfortable, she argues. It's an issue Jemison is passionate about and one she's actively involved in through her work with Dartmouth College's Jemison Institute for the Advancement of Technology.

She hosts conferences and lectures to audiences about the need for governments to increase funding for education and research in the sciences and for parents to become more involved with their children's education. We really have to think about how we're using our money, our resources and our time, she says. Many parents are willing to spend a few hundred dollars on sneakers but aren't willing to have their kids go to museums.

When I walk into a room, I have to prove that I know engineering. If a white male walks into a room and people say he's an engineer, they assume he knows engineering. So I'm in a different place.

Since completing her space mission, Mae Jemison has returned to engineering as the owner of BioSentient, a firm that develops and produces ambulatory monitoring devices. This technology, which monitors physiological patterns to assess an individual's health, is part of an emerging field ÔÇô one Jemison feels will grow in importance over the coming years. It's a very important place for medicine to be. If there's a goal I could share, it would be to have the company be a leader. But Jemison admits that despite her accomplishments, she often doesn't get the respect awarded to her white male peers. It's a very discouraging factor, she says. Because you're climbing the hurdle of being an engineer as well as having to go on and do other things too.

There hasn't been as much progress in engineering as I would have hoped in terms of the numbers of students, as well as, the reception they receive. That includes women in the engineering field. And it's directly related to the faculty ÔÇô we have to change their perspective. We have to get more faculty members in who understand that it's to their benefit at the university to have a good strong representative student body.

Mae Jemison's university experiences were mostly positive. Not only did she earn a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, she also gained an associate degree in African-American studies and became fluent in Swahili. But she admits to having a strenuous relationship with some faculty members who refused to believe an African-American woman could be a capable engineer.

If I were waiting for all of my professors with open arms to say they wanted me to join them, I wouldn't be here, she says. But I had a couple who were interested and that had to be sufficient. In the mid 70s ÔÇô around the time Jemison was at university ÔÇô 98 per cent of all engineers were white males. Since then, that number has decreased, but only slightly: minority groups still only make up six per cent of the profession.

According to the National Action Committee on Minorities in Engineering (NACME), the situation is partly the result of the lack of role models available to these students at the university level. It's a problem Jemison feels needs to be addressed in order to increase the enrollment of minorities in technical fields. Nevertheless, she advises students to pursue studies in science and technology regardless of their faculty's attitude.

It's not a student's job to worry about that ÔÇô your responsibility as a student is not to care if your professors want you there or not, but to choose what kind of career you want and to go after