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A Life of Transdisciplinary Science: The Expeditions of Mae Jemison

headshot of Dr. Mae Jemison
Dr. Mae Jemison.

In 1992, newly elected AAAS Fellow Dr. Mae Jemison was doing an experiment where she injected several female African clawed frogs with a hormone to induce ovulation. After harvesting and carefully analyzing batches of eggs under a microscope and fertilizing the healthiest looking ones, she would periodically re-assess the embryos and take microscopic images to document their development. This protocol was part of standard experiments to study reproduction – except that it was happening in space.

Jemison was one of 15 selected from 2,000 applicants to serve in NASA’s astronaut corps and later became the science mission specialist on board the STS-47 Spacelab-J, in partnership with the Japan Space Agency. Over the course of the eight-day space mission, Jemison was tasked with many experiments, including this research project to investigate how frog embryos develop in the ultra-low gravity conditions of space.

“I thought it was one of the coolest experiments ever,” recalls Jemison, noting that the results were counter to what scientists expected. Gravity was thought to be essential for the healthy development of embryos to help with proper cell positioning during key stages of development, but the eggs in this experiment developed normally in a microgravity environment.

Upon returning to Earth and making world history as the first woman of color in space, Jemison went on to have a multifaceted career as an engineer and doctor, using her voice to further advance societal responsibility equity and inclusion in science. Within a year following her space mission, she created The Earth We Share (TEWS) international science camp—part of the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, a foundation named after her mother, who was a Chicago public school teacher for over 25 years.

TEWS exposes teenagers to unique experiential learning opportunities that integrate science and technology with hands-on opportunities. Jemison notes that solely practicing methods of learning in the classroom, such as rote memorization and calculations, is a good way to deter kids from science.

“Experiences are how we humans learn best,” she notes.

For these reasons, TEWS emphasizes training teachers in experiential education and having students work in teams with their peers. More than 6,000 youth and 200 teachers from around the world have participated in the program to date.

As a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College in the early 2000s, she designed and served as the editor of SEEing the Future, a transdisciplinary workshop and white paper seeking the best uses of public funding for basic science research as part of the National Science Foundation’s 50th anniversary.

“I’m not afraid to herd cats – bring people together from different backgrounds and think independently.  I have enough optimism with good dose of realism to that we can come to better understanding and answers when we’re not afraid to approach these things,” says Jemison.

Jemison brought her optimism and collaborative approach to AAAS when she joined as a member early in her career, and subsequently served on the AAAS Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy. She says it was great to work with an organization that advocates for science and brings people together.

“It’s about understanding the universe around us and structuring our knowledge so that it can be applied more readily,” says Jemison. “And the more people we have, the wiser we will be in the application of what we know, and the better we will be able to gain the lessons from our experiences. That’s what I see AAAS as helping us do.”

While keeping busy with her many earthly projects, Jemison still has her eye on outer space. In 2012, she led the team that won the competitive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant to start the 100 Year Starship initiative (100YSS), a bold undertaking to ensure the capabilities for human interstellar travel to another star exists within 100 years. 

The 100YSS organization develops and implements programs that further radical leaps to address the technological and systemic hurdles required for interstellar space travel—from propulsion to microbiomes to economics and culture. Jemison notes that a critical part of this project involves science communication. In particular, helping greater society—and the science community—embrace the possibility and benefits of interstellar space travel without scoffing.

“I’d like to think that 100YSS is a part of the reason that ‘interstellar’ isn’t thought as so crazy these days because we worked really hard to change the way people think about it,” explains Jemison. Initial work to purposefully engage marketing experts and create avenues for writers to produce stories helped change the narrative of interstellar space travel from fantasy to attainable reality.

Jemison also notes that there is great value in a project such as 100YSS, whereby actions to “pursue an extraordinary world for tomorrow creates a better world today”. Who is involved is critical for shaping the outcomes and impact of science on society, she says, emphasizing the need to include diverse perspectives across ethnicities, gender, geography, and disciplines.

“Everyone has a right to be involved.”

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Michelle Hampson