Mae C. Jemison blasted into space 23 years ago. Today, she’s helping bring mankind closer to the stars.
Exactly 23 years ago, on Sept. 12, 1992, Mae C. Jemison boarded the Endeavor shuttle and shot into space, becoming the first woman of color to make the trip.
But NASA astronaut is only one of the many titles Jemison has held in her long and impressive career. She’s also been, in no particular order, a physician, a Peace Corps medical officer, an entrepreneur and an environmental studies professor. These days, her main gig is leading 100 Year Starship—a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA-seeded initiative to enable humans to travel to another star by 2112.
Where does that kind of drive come from? Jemison credits her parents, saying, “they would put up with all of my experiments”—including one in high school that filled their house with large vats of goldfish, water, and varying levels of the hormone thyroxine (the family’s cats were intent on scooping out the fish).
She also remembers sitting at the front of her school classrooms, hand perpetually in the air to ask or answer a question. That curiosity never left, and now she’s working to spark it in others as Bayer Corporation USA’s national science literacy advocate and champion of the Making Science Make Sense (MSMS) initiative to advance science literacy.
“Just think about what’s happened,” she says. “We’ve mapped the human genome. The internet is everywhere. We even have commercial spacecraft going to the space station. I think that shows exactly how much science, technology, engineering and mathematics are critical to our society moving forward, and how science literacy is necessary for everyone.”
Jemison spoke with Fortune about what it’s like to be a woman of color in STEM, what Bayer discovered in its new Facts of Science Education survey, and why she’d be first in line for a flight to Mars. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: What did the Bayer survey find about girls’ and minorities’ interest in science?
Mae C. Jemison: It found that parents and teachers both wanted schools and parents to take responsibility for minority students and girls doing well in science, which is really great. They recognize that kids live up or down to the expectations of those adults who are around them most.
I would do a caveat on that, though. You can put it beyond that. If you start seeing more girls doing science, if you see more under-represented minorities involved in science—on a [TV] program for instance—then [kids] will feel more comfortable with being involved, because society sort of validates it.
The survey also found that 85% of teachers say female students are just as interested in science education as their male counterparts. That sounds good, but then you realize—15% of teachers don’t think that way?
The fact that 85% of teachers say that is really wonderful. It means we’ve been doing some work. I would bet, even though we don’t have that number, it would have been lower a number of years ago. People say girls don’t like science, and a community of people accept that. But we know it’s not true. So I’m really thrilled that teachers believe that’s so and that parents do too.
So if the support is there, why aren’t more of these girls winding up in STEM careers?
When you think about it, all kids are excited about science and technology. Surveys over the years have shown that girls do as well as or better than boys in math and science all the way through high school. But in a survey Bayer did with women and minority members of the American Chemical Society, 40% said that they were discouraged by a college professor. Remember, these are the people who made it through. These are the chemists and chemical engineers.
What was your own experience like as a young girl interested in science?
I remember in kindergarten, my teacher said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I had my hand up. I said I wanted to be a scientist. She said, “Don’t you mean a nurse,” because she was trying to help me understand what I could be as a young African-American girl in the 60s. I was like, no, I mean a scientist. I was very indignant about it all too.
How had you settled on scientist by then?
Because I chose my parents well. We were always doing things around science. Neither of my parents were what people call a professional scientist. But I think they were the best scientists in the world because they would always ask me and my sister and brother to understand why something happens, to think it through. They also would help us with science experiments. I was the youngest, so I went through all my brother and sister’s science experiments.
You started Stanford at 16. What was that like?
I think it was the best school I could have gone to in terms of acceptance in science because I had a wide range of professors. But some of my professors were really thrilled to have me involved and some were not so thrilled to see me in their classroom. It sort of shows that experience is somewhat universal. I think it’s getting better though.
When you had one of those not-so-thrilled professors, what did that look like?
They just weren’t as warm to me. I remember one professor who would look at me when I would ask a question as though it was not a very bright question, and then maybe a white male down the way would ask the same question and he’d tell him, “That’s an astute observation.”
In school, I was always one of those little kids up at the front of the classroom raising my hand. I was used to having very good interactions with teachers and adults. Eventually you sort of lose your energy for sitting in the front of the room. But I didn’t leave. I stuck in there.
What helped you do that?
Part of it is I had summer jobs that were sponsored by Bell Laboratories. You get this reinforcement, and that’s the kind of role that companies and corporations can play. They can provide internships. They can provide scholarships. They can support the teachers in the classrooms.
What about companies attracting women and minorities for STEM jobs? How can they do a better job with that?
First of all, you have to value it. Companies have to understand that what they do in their workplace makes a difference, and that there’s a lot of talent we’re missing. The interesting thing is that as you change the environment so that it nurtures women and under-represented minorities, it also nurtures white males and gets more of them to stay in the field. That’s the little-known thing.
Why is that?
If you looked at some of the professors in the STEM departments, they said the students couldn’t cut it. “We’re weeding students out.” What that’s telling you is they’re taking students who are well-prepared and could graduate in these fields, and they’re creating an environment such that they don’t—which is not your job as a teacher. When you change that environment to one that wants kids to stay in and wants students to succeed, it benefits everyone.
The same thing happens in the workforce. Sometimes people say, if we’re encouraging women and minorities, doesn’t that mean we’re discouraging white males? That’s not the case. We’re doing a solid for everyone.
We’re coming up on the 23rd anniversary of your trip to space. What’s it like to look back on that now? Is it hard to believe you went up there?
No, it was very much a part of me and the work I’m doing now with 100 Year Starship, trying to make sure that we have the ability to send humans to another star. It reminds me that this transition to leading 100 Year Starship is really about using all of my experience—from the social sciences and medicine and engineering and working in developing countries to working in high-tech and sustainability.
Where does the starship initiative stand at this point?
We’re not trying to build a starship. We want to make sure the capabilities exist. So there’s no launch date. We’re a little over three years in, and we’re building things with intense workshops. We have a public symposium coming up in Silicon Valley this October. But the real issue is how do we get society to work on these big challenges.
Our proposal started off with “An inclusive audacious journey transforms life here on earth and beyond.: The first word is inclusive because we need the full range of human talent to be able to make these things happen.
If the opportunity to go to Mars came up, do you think you’d—
In a heartbeat.