Astronaut and physician Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, urged an enthralled audience at the University of Virginia on Sept. 20 to recapture the sense of infinite possibilities people felt when the United States was racing to reach the moon.

“All around me was this world that was filled with incredible ideas,” Dr. Jemison said about her childhood in the 1960s, “and I wanted to be a part of it. In fact, I assumed I’d be a part of it.” (Click here to see the video of Dr. Jemison’s speech.)

Astronaut and physician Mae Jemison speaks at Old Cabell Hall as part of UVA Engineering's Excellence Through Diversity Distinguished Learning Series.

Astronaut and physician Mae Jemison speaks at Old Cabell Hall as part of UVA Engineering’s Excellence Through Diversity Distinguished Learning Series.

Her speech launched UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science’s year-long Excellence Through Diversity Distinguished Learning Series.

Northrop Grumman Corp. sponsored the event, which UVA Engineering organized in partnership with the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the Darden School of Business, the McIntire School of Commerce, the Office of the Dean of Students’ Multicultural Student Services program, the Office of African-American Affairs and the Office of Diversity and Equity.

For a packed house at Old Cabell Hall, Jemison said diversity is critical for a world that is at a turning point for the next wave of technological improvements, when science, technology, engineering and mathematics permeate every facet of our lives. We need to have the broad perspectives that will allow us to optimize science, research and, ultimately, breakthroughs that benefit humanity.

She referenced the new movie “Hidden Figures,” based upon the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. The movie and book are about the African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson, who created the flight trajectories for Project Mercury and Apollo 11’s trip to the moon, and her two colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

Jemison said society is filled with stories about people who worked behind the scenes and made important things possible.

Astronauts “wouldn’t have gotten anywhere, as cool as we think we are, if it wasn’t for the technicians and maintenance workers and others who facilitated things,” Jemison said.

Without diversity, “You know who loses? Society loses, because society as a whole does not recognize the talent that it has.”

Astronaut and physician Mae Jemison and UVA Engineering Associate Dean for Diversity and Engagement John Gates speak with students

Astronaut and physician Mae Jemison and UVA Engineering Associate Dean for Diversity and Engagement John Gates speak with students

That sentiment is an important driver for UVA Engineering’s Excellence Through Diversity Distinguished Learning Series. The series is among the first major initiatives for UVA Engineering’s new associate dean for diversity and engagement, John Fitzgerald Gates. Engineering Dean Craig Benson appointed Gates earlier this year to lead the school in pursuing excellence by attracting and supporting the success of more students and faculty members from populations that are underrepresented in engineering, such as women, African Americans and Latinos.

Diversity of representation and thought in engineering is crucial to solving the global technological challenges of the future, Benson has said.

Gates is working with faculty, staff and students to redefine diversity as “excellence expressing itself through the intersection of perspectives and lived experiences,” rather than traditional definitions focused on proportional representation of minorities and women in engineering.

“We will harness the strategic value of diversity and inclusion in UVA Engineering’s research program and cultivate an environment in which everyone is optimally valued and supported,” Gates said.

Gates envisions the 2016-2017 Excellence through Diversity Distinguished Learning Series as a contribution to the University’s efforts for a long-lasting dialogue and broader understanding among UVA faculty, staff, students, alumni and members of the public who attend the various events.

Other presentations are planned to include:

  • Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociology professor at Duke University and expert on racism and human rights in America;
  • Thomas Page McBee, a transgender author whose writing on gender issues has appeared in The New York Times, Playboy,, Glamour, Salon, Pacific Standard, the Rumpus and Buzzfeed;
  • Pan-University town hall meetings focused on national race relations issues and their impact and intersection with UVA life and its community;
  • Joy DeGruy, an internationally recognized researcher, educator, author and presenter who provides insight into various cultural and ethnic groups that form the basis of contemporary American society;
  • Daniel Beaty, an award-winning performer from New York whose works highlight people’s ability to understand each other and their possibilities; and
  • Claude Steele, author of “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do.”

Event details, including dates, times and registration information, will be available throughout the year at

Dr. Jemison became the first African-American woman in space in 1992 as a NASA science mission specialist for the STS-47 Spacelab J mission aboard the shuttle Endeavor. During her 127 orbits of Earth, she not only conducted life science and materials processing experiments, but also brought with her a poster from the Alvin Ailey Dance Company to commemorate her joy in dance. Dr. Jemison champions the union of the arts, social sciences and physical sciences in higher education as mutually reinforcing bodies of knowledge, about which she has said, “Many people do not see a connection between science and dance, but I consider them both to be expressions of the boundless creativity that people have to share with one another.” The arts and the sciences, she has said, both bring equal perspectives to understanding who we are as people.

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Prof. Kathryn Thornton, a retired NASA astronaut, leads a discussion with fellow astronauts Leland Melvin and Dr. Mae Jemison.

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Prof. Kathryn Thornton, a retired NASA astronaut, leads a discussion with fellow astronauts Leland Melvin and Dr. Mae Jemison.

A native of Decatur, Alabama, Dr. Jemison grew up in Chicago, Illinois where she attended Morgan Park High School. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Stanford, fulfilled the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in African and Afro-American studies, and went on to earn a doctorate in medicine from Cornell in 1981.

After receiving her medical degree, she joined the Peace Corps, where she worked as a medical officer for the West African nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Dr. Jemison has earned numerous awards and honorary doctorates from Lincoln College in Pennsylvania and Winston-Salem College in North Carolina. She is a member of the National Academies. She was also a guest star on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which speaks directly to the statement for which she is best known: “Never limit yourself because of others’ limited imagination; never limit others because of your own limited imagination.”

Dr. Jemison is principal investigator of the Defense Advanced Research Projects-funded 100 Year Starship project, an initiative to encourage the imagination, creativity, knowledge and new technologies needed to achieve interstellar travel in the next 100 years while producing applications that enhance the quality of life on Earth for all of citizens.

Comments are closed.