What is it like to float in space? What if the view out your office window was the earth, glowing in a swirl of blue, green, and white? What do you think space smells like? Last Thursday evening at UMKC, over 250 people received answers to these questions from Dr. Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to go into space. Delivering the keynote address at the UMKC Starr Symposium, Bright Pasts, Brilliant Futures, Dr. Jemison’s speech was meant to inspire and encourage women to pursue careers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Who better to encourage women to pursue science than Dr. Jemison? Her resume is impressive. She is, after all, an astronaut, an engineer, a physician, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, and an author. But she is also real, and down-to-earth (no pun intended). She is a self-described product of Chicago’s Southside public school system, a wannabe dancer, a cat-lover, a Trekkie, and someone who absolutely hates doing dishes. These last few qualities made her very relatable to both men and women in the audience. Sharing her story about making the difficult decision between pursuing medical school or going to Broadway to become a dancer, Dr. Jemison gave a conclusion to which most mother’s and daughter’s could relate. “My mother decided that for me,” she said. But as the audience laughed, she explained her mother’s logic. Her mother had told her, “As a doctor you can still dance; but as a dancer, you can’t practice medicine.”
This was the central message of Dr. Jemison’s speech: Women must make wise decisions about their career aspirations, but they should not have to decide between their intellectual, analytical self and their intuitive, artistic self. Both can coexist. Moreover, it’s to every woman’s advantage not to choose between being analytical or intuitive, but to bring these two together in a way that she can reach her full potential. In Dr. Jemison’s case, she realized that the creativity it took to be an artist and dancer could also be applied to making scientific breakthroughs and developing new technologies. This is something that should be realized by all women. Statistically, women are outnumbered by men in the STEM fields. Just think about the advances that can be made if more women broke down the barriers that prevent them from reaching their full potential and entered these fields. Dr. Jemison’s accomplishments are the product of making good choices and reaching her full potential. To the young women in the audience Thursday night, she encouraged them to do the same.
Through lectures and annual programs such as the one Thursday night, The Starr Symposium seeks to address women’s issues and family concerns and examine ways to eliminate barriers that women face. This year, the new, year-long Starr Women Leaders Program was created to provide mentoring to 9th, 10th, and 11th-grade girls in Kansas City with an expressed interest in the STEM fields, as well as leadership development to female UMKC students majoring in the STEM fields. The group consists of 13 UMKC women and 27 high school girls, many of whom were present to hear Dr. Jemison speak. Encouraged by her words, all 40 of these young women have the potential of becoming the next Dr. Mae Jemison and the next group of female pioneers in science, technology, math, and science. For more information about the Starr Symposium and the Starr Women Leaders Program please visit www.umkc.edu/starr.