Stanford Classroom

The Earth We Share: Astronaut Mae Jemison returns to campus to talk sustainability, science in society.
Stanford Engineering

Just before Dr. Mae Jemison took the podium at the Department of Chemical Engineering’s 50th Anniversary dinner May 11, Stanford Engineering Dean Jim Plummer described her as “T-shaped.” It was not a reference to her Texas residency, or a play on the signature NASA “T-minus” countdown that preceded her becoming the first African-American woman in space in 1992. Rather, Plummer said Jemison (BS 1977 ChemE) is the model of the kind of engineering leader Stanford seeks to educate: deeply expert in her field (the stem of the “T”), but also possessing a willingness to take on big societal problems, a creative and entrepreneurial outlook, and a desire to work with people who have different perspectives and skills (the broad branches of the “T”). “Mae Jemison was a T-shaped person before any of us knew what that was, or even thought about how important it was for our graduates to be more than just technically deep engineers,” Plummer said. “She is just a remarkable person. She has a passion for people, for science, for technology, for medicine, for education. She has touched countless lives throughout the world. She is a doctor, an engineer, a scientist, an academic, an author, a dancer, an actress and entrepreneur.” Of course, most people know Jemison as the historic astronaut, but she drew on all of her accumulated perspective during two days of lectures and meetings with fellow ChemE alumni and current students. She challenged her audiences to account for their professional impact on, and interactions with, other people and the planet. As the ChemE anniversary event’s keynote speaker, for example, she said that because research is ultimately funded and governed by the society it serves, scientists and engineers must not only elevate the scientific literacy of policymakers and the general population, but also welcome into the field members of groups who traditionally have been excluded. The next morning as the guest lecturer at a ChemE class, she gave students conceptual tools to evaluate the broader environmental repercussions of their engineering designs. Taking the example of growing crops for biofuels, for instance, she reminded students that while doing so may improve U.S. energy independence, it may stress earth’s nitrogen cycle, divert land from other uses, and still generate greenhouse gas emissions. “[A design] may be really great in one way, but remember you are working in a system and that system has an impact over a range of things,” she said.


Jemison’s own impact must have seemed difficult to predict when she walked on to Stanford’s campus, site unseen, a month before her 17th birthday in 1973. At a time when it was doubly rare to be an African-American and a woman with such a keen interest in engineering, Jemison came from Chicago to The Farm with the poise of a girl as comfortable with choreography as calculus. But Jemison told her fellow alumni that her confidence was often challenged by the chilly reception she sometimes received. “When I first came to Stanford, you could tell that I was one of those kids who would sit in the front row waving their hands up in the air — I went to an integrated high school in Chicago and I did very well on my SATs — but some of my professors weren’t that thrilled to see me and I ended up gradually being one of those kids who floated all the way back to the back of the classroom,” she recalled. One exception was her advisor, Professor Channing Robertson, who assigned lab partners in his fluid dynamics class and enforced that work be done collaboratively, thereby breaking down her isolation from her fellow students. “That was the first opportunity that I actually had to work with some of the other folks who were in the chemical engineering department with me,” said Jemison, who double-majored in African American studies. “That made so much of a difference in terms of my understanding.” And then she made a point that’s remained relevant decades later, as officials continue to fret about why more women and minorities don’t pursue careers in science and engineering. “We have to pay attention to how we get students not just to get here to Stanford, and not just to get through, but to have the kind of experience that makes them stay in the field and makes them tell the next person, ‘Yeah, you should go into it.’” Students, she said later, look to their professors for assurance that they belong. As specialized or as rarefied as science may seem, she added, exclusion or aloofness are not options — science is beholden to society. “If a scientist has the freedom to pursue his or her own interests and passions it’s only because a host of other agencies and bodies … have tacitly endorsed those interests and provided a means to continue,” she said. “The public coffers that make research possible … derive from monies collected not just from corporations and businesses but from the men and women who work daily at the task of keeping our society running. Those allocating public funds for research as well as those receiving them have a critical responsibility for their ethical stewardship on behalf of these other folks.” For her part, Jemison has given back repeatedly. Shortly after receiving her medical degree at Cornell University in 1981, she served as a doctor for the Peace Corps for two-and-a-half years in West Africa. In 1993, she founded a Houston-based company, the Jemison Group, to provide consulting on technology deployments in the developing world. And since 1994, as part of a charitable foundation she established and named for her mother, Dorothy, she has run a science literacy camp for 12-16 year olds called “The Earth We Share.”


The concept that people share the earth with complex and delicate systems, was a central idea she carried into her guest lecture at Assistant Professor Tom Jaramillo’s class, Chemical Engineering 130, “Separation Processes.” Jemison, who became a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College from 1995-2002 after studying remote sensing during a 1987-1993 tenure at NASA, told the students that as engineers, they face a moral imperative to think about how technologies affect natural systems. She carried this message with her straight from Houston, where many residents, including thousands who are economically tied to the oil industry, are nevertheless concerned about gigantic plumes of oil spilling into the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Jemison presented the students with a framework in the form of a conceptual graph that plots the cost of remediating ecological damage from a technology against the possibility of remediating that damage. Somewhere between the corner where damage is easily remediated at low cost and the corner where it probably can’t be fixed and would be prohibitive to even try, society must draw a line to delineate what technologies need to be tightly regulated. “You guys will be out there designing things and making decisions about what goes forward,” she said. “Is there some place where the costs will be so high and the damage so irreversible, that you shouldn’t play in that area?” Jemison then took questions. The students asked what she is most proud of (pushing herself physically and mentally, including overcoming her fear of heights in NASA parachute training), whether she’d go back into space (yes, if she could leave low-earth orbit), what’s surprised her the most about science literacy (“It’s so bad among the general public; it really is.”); and how she navigated her career path (“How I think about when to change is whether I start losing my smile.”). The students collectively gave her one of those smiles. Of the 21 students, eight were women, three were African-American, and their professor was Hispanic. “I was just so impressed by the ChemE class,” she said. “I was just really thrilled by that—the broad, diverse, energetic students.” It’s some evidence of progress, perhaps — especially if all the students in the class, regardless of their race or gender, take on the T-shape that makes them engineering leaders like Jemison.

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