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Jemison tackles adversity in science during keynote address

Jemison tackles adversity in science during keynote address

Photo courtesy of Emily Sauchelli //Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut was the keynote speaker for Hofstra’s ‘ONE GIANT LEAP: Apollo 11 @ 50’ conference on Wednesday, April 3, sharing her inspiring story with attendees.

Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut, was the keynote speaker for the “One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 @ 50” conference on Wednesday, April 3. Students, faculty and community members gathered in the Toni and Martin Sosnoff Theater of John Crawford Adams Playhouse for the event.

Hofstra’s Cultural Center and The Cradle of Aviation collaborated to create a celebration honoring the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Jemison focused much of her conversation on discussing education, women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields during World War II and the history of space exploration since Apollo 11.

On Saturday, Sept. 12, 1992, Jemison became the first African American female astronaut as part of NASA’s space shuttle program, with her first launch being on the shuttle Endeavour and STS-47 at Kennedy Space Center for NASA’s 50th shuttle mission.  

Jemison grew up on the south side of Chicago during the 1960s with two siblings – a brother and a sister. She recalled how as a young girl she was nervous for her father to go to work as riots and protests occurred during the period of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.  

As a woman of color, Ameera Iftekhar, a junior applied physics major, felt a connection to Jemison.

“Being a first-generation child, a racial minority and a Muslim, I’ve felt limitations and boundaries ever since I was young, when I learned that just my skin color can influence how others treat me and my faith can have me killed. But after meeting her, I see that not only are those boundaries false, but the sky isn’t even the limit,” Iftekhar said.

Hebah Uddin, a 2017 Hofstra alumna who majored in English literature with a minor in psychology, admired Jemison’s perseverance through adversity. Uddin enjoyed, “being able to hear directly from a hero who openly acknowledges the struggles of being a woman of color in an industry where she was the first, and was able to overcome those obstacles and bigotry to succeed and achieve.”

“When I emotionally felt it was back in 2006 ... We did a project called celebrating women of color in flight. It was women around the world who have been involved in space and aviation,” Jemison said when asked when she finally realized that she paved the way for women of color in astronautics. “When it was that point in time, I realized that perhaps I could convene these folks, and everybody just wanted to talk to each other – this was the first time that all these women had gotten together in a room.”

Jemison also discussed one other person who was influential in bringing about change for women in space. “You know who was really fundamental in helping [women in the 1970s] get in? Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura [in the Star Trek franchise],” Jemison said.

Currently, Jemison is the principal for the 100-year starship project. The goal of the project is to establish a successful human journey to another star by 2112. Throughout the event, Jemison continued to bring up the idea of innovation and finding new ways to tackle the ever-changing landscape we call Earth.

“She inspires me because she came out of adversity, being raised as a black woman in 1960s America, to carve out a path for women of color in the STEM fields with her wit and her sheer grit. Without her, I’d have no chance at anything but being anonymously in the footnotes of the discoveries of white men. It takes an especially powerful woman, even in 2019, to make a name for herself, especially in the STEM field. I only hope to be half as powerful one day,” Iftekhar said.

Some female students, like Uddin, walked away with a renewed sense of confidence that they can work and succeed in STEM fields. “Recently, friends have advised me, ‘If a guy would apply for that job, why can’t you?’ and I’ve definitely started to take that more to heart after hearing Dr. Jemison speak,” Uddin said.

“It does make me hopeful that the next generation will be even more empowered than the last. With all of these young girls coming out to meet this powerful woman, being fans themselves and maybe even budding scientists, thinkers, movers and shakers, I see it near impossible that we won’t have a better world very soon,” Iftekhar said.

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