By Michelle Barrett, Freelance Reporter
Dr. Jemison... - Ian Allen/Staff Photographer
ON SEPTEMBER 12, 1992, history was created when Dr. Mae C. Jemison, aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, became the first black woman to be blasted into orbit.
Since her return to earth, with that mission accomplished, Dr. Jemison continues to blaze other trails.
Her journey to the final frontier is but one of many achievements for this African-American woman who grew up during the era of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Looking just as pretty as her photos, with an infectious smile and wearing a cool yellow floral dress, Dr. Jemison recounted to Flair her youthful days growing up in the windy city of Chicago and her awesome journey into adulthood.
"I was very thrilled like anyone else would be about going into space. But after getting over the initial excitement, I asked myself, "why did it take so long for a woman of colour to travel into space?" It was then I realised I had an obligation to now bring my knowledge gained from what I had learnt from the space mission, social sciences and as a physician to the young people of the African-American community," said Dr. Jemison, sitting on a balcony at the Half Moon Hotel in Montego Bay last week. She was the guest speaker at the opening ceremony of the Caribbean Women's Executive Conference held at the Hilton Kingston Hotel on the weekend. She was also among one of five recipients of the Trailblazer Awards presented to be her by Caribbean Business Forum, organisers of the conference.
In 1993, a year after her space voyage, she left the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) centre in Texas, and founded The Jemison Group, Inc. a private company that focuses on projects that integrate social science issues into the design of technologies. She also heads a new company, BioSentient Corporation, a medical technology company, formed in 1999. The new company develops and markets mobile equipment that are worn to monitor the body's vital signs and train people to respond favourably to stressful situations thus reducing the use of medication. She also founded and chairs The Earth We Share, an annual international science camp that enhances the problem solving skills of 12 to 16 year olds through an experiential curriculum.
That's not all. Dr. Jemison served as Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College from 1995 to last year and now directs the Jemison Institute of Advancing Technology in developing countries which focuses on sustainable development. She is also Professor-at-Large at her alma mater Cornell University.
The recipient of numerous awards and honours, including induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame and National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, she admitted to a fascination with the world around her and beyond hence her deep love for the sciences.
"Simply living in the world was just not enough for me, I wanted to know more about it and understand it better. My curiosity sometimes got me in trouble with my parents, causing a little consternation for both of them, but they understood what I was about and so gave me their support and encouragement."
At 16, Dr. Jemison was accepted into Stanford University where she earned a Bachelor's Degree in Chemical Engineering in 1977. She later studied Medicine at Cornel Medical School, graduating in 1981. Following medical school, she joined the United States Peace Corps, serving in Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa as the Corp's youngest medical officer.
Dr. Jemison's life, however, has not centred only around the sciences. She has been exposed to politics, and has dabbled in music and dance. Her love for the arts led her to audition for the leading role of Maria in the Broadway musical 'West Side Story'. She didn't get that part but her dancing skills impressed the casting directors enough to get her into the line up as a background dancer.
"I had a problem with the singing but I danced and acted pretty well enough for them to choose me. I think that people sometimes limit themselves and so rob themselves of the opportunity to realise their dreams. For me, I love the sciences and I also love the arts. I saw the theatre as an outlet for this passion and so I decided to pursue this dream," she recalled.
"We need to decide whether we should break the rules or follow them. Sometimes in trying to achieve things for ourselves we need to break the rules, so persons should not try to limit themselves but realise that chances are there to be taken," she noted.
During the 1960s when Civil Rights was a hot issue for African-Americans and cities across the United States erupted into frequent riots, a young Dr. Jemison was not deterred by these conditions.
"Growing up in the 1960s and being young African-Americans we all wanted to belong. For me, I felt it was time to change the power system and so I set out to do just that. I am and will always be proud of being a black woman I don't want to be anything else," she emphasised.
"My parents grew up in Alabama (in the southern States) and it was a rather difficult period in their lives. My mother was educated up to college while my father dropped out of high school to learn a trade. My parents always valued education and insisted that we as children be well educated in order to help change the system."
These values, she noted, as well as her refusal to put a limit on her abilities, have made her the person she is today.
In Spring 2001 Dr. Jemison penned her first book, 'Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments From My Life'. In this warm and intimate autobiography, the former astronaut shares funny, sassy, and inspirational anecdotes from moments in her life. The book was released earlier this year.
This much accomplished woman currently resides in Houston, Texas is single and loves cats.