Former astronaut Mae Jemison to speak at Rice’s 2017 commencement

Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, will present the 2017 commencement address at Rice University May 13.

photo of Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison

A physician, engineer, educator, entrepreneur and former astronaut, Jemison is the principal for 100 Year Starship, a global initiative to ensure the capability for interstellar human space flight by 2112. She won a competitive grant from DARPA to fund the project.

“I’m thrilled with our students’ choice of Dr. Jemison as Rice’s 2017 commencement speaker,” Rice President David Leebron said. “She has a global reputation as a bold, pathbreaking and entrepreneurial leader. Her concern with improving opportunities for young people and harnessing the power of science has been evident in her many contributions. She has excelled in an incredible range of endeavors throughout her career, and I am confident she will bring an inspiring message to our students.”

A member of the National Academy of Medicine, Jemison has a medical degree from Cornell University. During medical school she traveled to Cuba, Kenya and Thailand to provide primary care, and after completing her medical training, she joined the Peace Corps and served as the medical officer responsible for the health of volunteers serving in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel in space when she flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel in space when she flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

At the age of 5, Jemison told her kindergarten teacher that she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up. At age 16 she entered Stanford University and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and also fulfilled the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American studies.

In a video profile on, Jemison said that growing up on the south side of Chicago, “I always assumed I would go into space.” She wanted to explore space “because it was so mysterious.” She recalled that during the Apollo era, most people were thrilled about space. “But I remember being really, really irritated that there were no women astronauts,” she said. Seeing black actress Nichelle Nichols play Lt. Uhura on the TV show “Star Trek” helped Jemison view a woman of color in space as “something reasonable to think about.”

NASA selected Jemison for the astronaut program in June 1987 – a couple of years after she served as a doctor for the Peace Corps. She went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992 and served as the science mission specialist on STS-47 Spacelab-J, which was a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan. Jemison was a co-investigator on the bone cell research experiment flown on the eight-day mission, which was achieved in 127 orbits of Earth.

Jemison left NASA in early 1993 to found her own company, the Jemison Group Inc., a technology-consulting firm that integrated socio-cultural issues into the design and development of engineering and science projects.

Jemison is founder and chairman of the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, a nonprofit named in honor of her mother. “The Earth We Share,” an international science camp founded in 1994, is the foundation’s premier program. It focuses on the mission of the foundation and is designed to promote science literacy for all students and enhance teacher skills in experiential education.

Jemison also founded BioSentient Corp., which developed a portable device that allows mobile monitoring of the involuntary nervous system, and was the founding chairman of the state of Texas’ Product Development and Small Business Incubator Board.

She has been a professor-at-large at Cornell and a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, where she taught classes on technology design and sustainable development with special emphasis on developing countries.

In addition to the National Academy of Medicine, Jemison has been elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the National Medical Association Hall of Fame, the Texas Science Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame. She has received the National Organization for Women’s Intrepid Award, the Ebony Black Achievement Award and the Kilby Science Award, among others, and has been listed among the “100 Greatest African-Americans” by African-American studies expert Molefi Kete Asante.

A committee of undergraduate and graduate students worked with the Office of the President to select Jemison as the commencement speaker. Melissa Marschall, professor of political science, served as faculty adviser to the committee.

About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.