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Dancing with the stars: Humanities, science, technology meet in career of 2018 commencement speaker

Mae Jemison, PhD, 2018 commencement speakerScience, art, culture, language, technology. The technicolor career of Mae Jemison, MD, has been informed by and delved deeply into each of these pursuits, leading the 2018 Creighton University commencement speaker into medicine, the Peace Corps, dance, advocacy, innovation and, in 1992, outer space, where, as a mission specialist and the first African-American woman in space, she made 126 orbits around Earth on the space shuttle Endeavor.

May 12, Jemison will address the Creighton Class of 2018 at both the 9:30 a.m. ceremony for health sciences and law graduates, and the 1 p.m. ceremony for undergraduate and graduate students.

“To have an individual of such sterling accomplishment and with such universal curiosity as Dr. Mae Jemison as our commencement speaker is a great honor for our University,” said Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD. “Dr. Jemison's work in centering the liberal arts and humanities in all pursuits within and beyond the halls of the academy is also our focus at Creighton. We look forward to hearing about how she has taken her many interests and deepened them for the benefit of our world and its people.”

A strong proponent of the humanities across the curriculum, Jemison got her start early as the daughter of an elementary schoolteacher and a maintenance worker who encouraged her curiosity. As a youngster laid up with an infection, Jemison decided to perform an extended experiment on pus.

“My parents were the best scientists I knew, because they were always asking questions,” Jemison said in a 2005 interview.

At 16, Jemison graduated high school early and earned a scholarship to Stanford University, where she earned dual bachelor degrees in chemical engineering and African and African American studies.

Enrolling in medical school at Cornell University, Jemison also began taking classes in modern dance at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. Her dancing ambitions led to the construction of a dance studio in her home and Jemison has also produced several shows in modern jazz and African dance.

Following her graduation from medical school, Jemison served as a medical officer with the Peace Corps from 1983 to 1985, working with volunteers serving Liberia and Sierra Leone. While with the Peace Corps, Jemison supervised pharmacy, laboratory and medical staffs, developed and implemented guidelines for health and safety and worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help research various vaccines.

After her return to the U.S., Jemison went into general practice as a physician, but when Sally Ride made her historic spaceflight in 1983, Jemison started to think about rekindling a childhood dream. In 1987, Jemison became one of 15 candidates selected from a field of more than 2,000 applicants to begin NASA training as an astronaut.

Sept. 12, 1992, Jemison went up with six fellow astronauts on an eight-day mission aboard Endeavor, where she co-led an investigation on two bone-cell experiments. On the mission, Jemison carried with her a photograph of Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to fly an airplane, small artworks from West African nations, and a poster from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

“Many people do not see a connection between science and dance,” Jemison said. “But I consider them both to be expressions of the boundless creativity that people have to share with one another.”

In 1999, Jemison founded BioSentient Corp, a technology firm dedicated to developing monitoring of the involuntary nervous system. The company is licensed to use NASA’s autogenic feedback training exercise, a patented technique using biofeedback and autogenic therapy, to allow patients to monitor and control their physiology as a possible treatment for anxiety and stress-related disorders.

Jemison founded the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries while teaching environmental studies at Dartmouth College, and started the Jemison Group to research, market and develop science-based solutions for daily life. The Jemison Group also seeks to engender a love of science among youth and to spread advanced technology around the world. Jemison also started the 100-Year Starship program, an international science camp for high schoolers.

Among myriad honors, Jemison was most recently bestowed the 2017 Buzz Aldrin Space Pioneer Award, the 2005 National Audubon Society’s Rachel Carson Award, and is an inductee in the 2004 class of the International Space Hall of Fame. Her name also appears on several institutions around the nation, including the Mae C. Jemison Science and Space Museum at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, the Mae C. Jemison Academy in Detroit, Mae Jemison School in Hazel Crest, Illinois, the Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy in Baltimore and Jemison High School in Huntsville, Alabama.

Currently a professor-at-large at Cornell University, she continues to promote science education among minority students and illustrating African American achievements in science through history. Jemison also works tirelessly as an advocate for the central position of the social sciences and humanities in the study of science and technology.

“I’m very interested in how social sciences interact with technologies,” she said. “People always think of technology as something having silicon in it. But a pencil is technology. Any language is technology. Technology is a tool we use to accomplish a particular task and when one talks about appropriate technology in developing countries, appropriate may mean anything from fire to solar electricity.”

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.