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THE EARTH WE SHARE: ASTRONAUT MAE JEMISON RETURNS TO CAMPUS TO TALK SUSTAINABILITY, SCIENCE IN SOCIETY.

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.

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