As a child growing up, Jemison learned to make connections to the math with the help by studying nature. "It sounds a little gross, but I was fascinated with pus," Jemison said. Once when a splinter infected her thumb as a little girl, Jemison's mother turned it into a learning experience. "I ran and showed it to my mother and she was telling me it was pus. I was like, ‘'Well, what is that?' And I ended up doing this whole project, reading about pus. My mother always told me to go find out the information myself. She was very directive, in the sense of ‘'it's your responsibility,' sort of like those people who tell you to go look up a word in the dictionary when you don’t know how to spell it." Jemison wouldn't let anyone dissaude her from pursuing a career in science. "In kindergarten, my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told her a scientist," Jemison says. "She said, 'Don't you mean a nurse?' Now, there's nothing wrong with being a nurse, but that's not what I wanted to be."
Jemison says she was inspired by Martin Luther King but to her King's dream wasn't an illusive fantasy but a call to action. "Too often people paint him like Santa -- smiley and inoffensive," says Jemison. "But when I think of Martin Luther King, I think of attitude and audacity." Jemison thinks the civil rights movement was all about breaking down the barriers to human potential. "The best way to make dreams come true is to wake up," says Jemison.
Jemison loved science growing up but she also loved the arts. Jemison began dancing at the age of 9. "I love dancing! I took all kinds of dance — African dancing, ballet, jazz, modern — even Japanese dancing. I wanted to become a professional dancer," said Jemison. During high school she auditioned for the leading role of "Maria" in West Side Story. She didn't get the part but Jemison's dancing skills did get her into the line up as a background dancer. "I had a problem with the singing but I danced and acted pretty well enough for them to choose me. I think that people sometimes limit themselves and so rob themselves of the opportunity to realise their dreams. For me, I love the sciences and I also love the arts," says Jemison. "I saw the theatre as an outlet for this passion and so I decided to pursue this dream." Later during her senior year in college, she was trying to decide whether to go to New York to medical school or become a professional dancer. Her mother told her, "You can always dance if you're a doctor, but you can't doctor if you're a dancer."
Jemison graduated from Chicago's Morgan Park High School in 1973 and entered Stanford University at age 16. "I was naive and stubborn enough that it didn’t faze me," Jemison said. "It’s not until recently that I realized that 16 was particularly young or that there were even any issues associated with my parents having enough confidence in me to [allow me to] go that far away from home." Jemison graduated from Stanford in 1977, receiving a B.S. in chemical engineering and fulfilling the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American Studies. Jemison said that majoring in engineering as a black woman was difficult because race is always an issue in the United States. "Some professors would just pretend I wasn't there. I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was just so dumb, the dumbest question he had ever heard. Then, when a white guy would ask the same question, the professor would say, "That's a very astute observation.'"
Jemison obtained her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1981 from Cornell Medical College (now Weill Medical College of Cornell University). She interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and later worked as a general practitioner. During medical school Jemison traveled to Cuba, Kenya and Thailand, to provide primary medical care to people living there. During her years at Cornell Medical College, Jemison took lessons in modern dance at the Alvin Ailey school. Jemison later built a dance studio in her home and has choreographed and produced several shows of modern jazz and African dance.
Once while serving as a doctor for the Peace Corps, a volunteer got sick and another doctor was diagnosed with malaria. The volunteer got progressively worse and Jemison was sure it was meningitis with life-threatening complications that could not be treated in Sierra Leone. Jemison called for an Air Force hospital plane based in Germany for a military medical evacuation at a cost of $80,000. The embassy questioned whether Jemison had the authority to give such an order but she told them she didn't need anyone's permission for a medical decision. By the time the plane reached Germany with Jemison and the volunteer on board, she had been up with the patient for 56 hours. The volunteer survived.
While working in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, Jemison found a feline companion who would share her life for the next 15 years - a cat named "Sneeze and Fleas." "He was white with touches of silver and gray, and used to sit at the table with me. When I first got him he was eating the local foods, which were spicy sauces and stews over rice," Jemison said. "When I started working on the space mission, he lived with my parents in Chicago and was the one thing I really couldn't wait to return to. When I think of home and what it means to me, I always think of Sneeze."
In 1985 Jemison returned to the United States, entered private practice in Los Angeles as a general practitioner with CIGNA Health Plans of California and began taking graduate engineering courses. After the flight of Sally Ride in 1983, Jemison felt the astronaut program had opened up enough for her to apply. Jemison's inspiration for joining NASA was African-American actress Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Commander Uhura on Star Trek. Jemsion was turned down on her first application to NASA, but in 1987 Jemison was accepted on her second application and became one of the fifteen candidates accepted from over 2,000 applicants. "I got a call saying 'Are you still interested?' and I said 'Yeah'," says Jemison.
Her work with NASA before her shuttle launch included launch support activities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and verification of Shuttle computer software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL). "My task while I was with NASA was not to immediately start training for space flight, because it takes a while before you are assigned to a mission, but I did things like help to support the launch of vehicles at Kennedy Space Center," said Jemison. "I was in the first class of astronauts selected after the Challenger accident back in 1986, and the very first assignment I had was working at Kennedy Space Center. I saw the launch and in fact actually worked the launch of the first flight after the Challenger accident. I worked at the shuttle avionics integration laboratory, which is where all the software that flies the space shuttle is tested."
Jemison flew her only space mission from September 12 to 20, 1992 as a Mission Specialist on STS-47. "The first thing I saw from space was Chicago, my hometown," said Jemison. "I was working on the middeck where there aren't many windows, and as we passed over Chicago, the commander called me up to the flight deck. It was such a significant moment because since I was a little girl I had always assumed I would go into space," Jemison added. "When I grew up in the 1960s the only American astronauts were men. Looking out the window of that space shuttle, I thought if that little girl growing up in Chicago could see her older self now, she would have a huge grin on her face."
Because of her love of dance and as a salute to creativity, Jemison took a poster from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company along with her on the flight. "Many people do not see a connection between science and dance," says Jemison. "but I consider them both to be expressions of the boundless creativity that people have to share with one another." Jemison also took several small art objects from West African countries to symbolize that space belongs to all nations.
STS-47 was a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan that included 44 Japanese and United States life science and materials processing experiments. The international crew was divided into red and blue teams for around the clock operations. Jemison was the co-investigator for the bone cell research experiment that investigated how space flight causes changes in bone cell function to better understand why bones become weaker during space flight. Jemison logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds in space.
Jemison resigned from NASA in March 1993. "I left NASA because I'm very interested in how social sciences interact with technologies," says Jemison. "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." Although Jemison's departure from NASA was amicable, NASA was not thrilled to see her leave. "NASA had spent a lot of money training her; she also filled a niche, obviously, being a woman of color," says Hiram Hickam, a training manager for NASA’s space station efforts.
In 1993 Jemison started her own company, the Jemison Group that researches, markets, and develops science and technology for daily life. In 1993, Jemison also appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. LeVar Burton found out, from a friend that Jemison was a big "Star Trek" fan and asked her if she'd be interested in being on the show, and she said, "Yeah!!" The result was an appearance in the episode "Second Chances." Jemison has the distinction of being the first real astronaut ever to appear on Star Trek.
In 1994, Jemison founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence and named the foundation in honor of her mother. "My parents were the best scientists I knew," Jemison said, "because they were always asking questions." One of the projects of Jemison's foundation is The Earth We Share (TEWS), an international science camp where students, ages 12 to 16, work to solve current global problems, like "How Many People Can the Earth Hold" and "Predict the Hot Public Stocks of The Year 2030." The four-week residential program helps students build critical thinking skills and learn to solve solving problems through an experiential curriculum. Camps have been held at Dartmouth College, Colorado School of Mines, Choate Rosemary Hall and other sites around the United States. TEWS was introduced internationally to high school students in day programs in South Africa and Tunisia. In 1999, TEWS was expanded overseas to adults at the Zermatt Creativity and Leadership Symposium held in Switzerland.
In 1996, Jemison filed a complaint against a Texas police officer accusing him of police brutality during a traffic stop that ended in her arrest. She was pulled over by Nassau Bay, Texas officer Henry Hughes for allegedly making an illegal U-turn and arrested after Hughes learned of a warrant on Jemison for a speeding charge. In her complaint, Jemison said the officer physically and emotionally mistreated her and Jemison's attorney said she was forced to the ground and handcuffed. Jemison said in a televised interview that the incident has altered her feelings about police there. "I always felt safe and comfortable (around the police). I don't feel that way anymore at Nassau Bay and that's a shame," she said.
In 1999 Jemison founded BioSentient Corp and has been working to develop a portable device that allows mobile monitoring of the involuntary nervous system. Biosentient has obtained the license to commercialize NASA's space-age technology known as Autogenic Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE), a patented technique that uses biofeedback and autogenic therapy to allow patients to monitor and control their physiology as a possible treatment for anxiety and stress related disorders. "BioSentient is examining AFTE as a treatment for anxiety, nausea, migraine and tension headaches, chronic pain, hypertension and hypotension, and stress-related disorders," says Jemison.
In 2006, Jemison participated in African American Lives, a PBS television miniseries hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., that traced the family history of eight famous African Americans using historical research and genetic techniques. Jemison found to her surprise that she is 13% East Asian in her genetic makeup.
In 2007, diagnostic test provider Gen-Probe Inc. announced that they would not accept the resignation of Jemison from their Board of Directors. Jemison had failed to be re-elected to the board in a vote of the shareholders of the company at the company's May 31 annual stockholders meeting. The company said it believes Jemison's failed re-election was the result of a recommendation by advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services that shareholders vote against her due to her poor attendance at board meetings. Gen-Probe determined that Jemison's two absences in 2006 were for valid reasons and said Jemison had attended all regular and special board and committee meetings since September.
On February 17, 2008 Jemison was the featured speaker for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Jemison paid tribute to Alpha Kappa Alpha by carrying the sorority's banner with her on her shuttle flight. Jemison's space suit is a part of the sorority's national traveling Centennial Exhibit. Jemison is an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority founded in 1908 at Howard University to address the social issues of the time and promote scholarship among black women.
Jemsion appears at charity events. In 2007, Jemison walked the runway, wearing Lyn Devon, at the Red Dress Heart Truth fashion show during Fashion Week in New York to help raise money to fight heart disease. Jemison is an active public speaker who appears before private and public groups promoting science and technology as well as providing an inspirational and educational message for young people. "Having been an astronaut gives me a platform," says Jemison, "but I'd blow it if I just talked about the shuttle." Jemison uses her platform to speak out on disparities in the quality of health-care in the United States and Third World nations. We talk about taking proper care of people, but we don't do it," Jemison says. "We lack the commitment. Martin Luther King was about doing things. He didn't just have a dream, he got things done. My message is about seeing possibilities and having the courage to work toward them."
Jemison is a Professor-at-Large at Cornell University and was a professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College from 1995 to 2002. Jemison continues to advocate strongly in favor of science education and getting minority students interested in science. "Science and technology; how we understand the world, and the tools we create, has always been a part of every society," says Jemison. "And what we have to do now is make sure that people are not fooled into thinking, 'oh, it's just the purview of someone else.' The most amazing thing to me about technological advancement and design is that African-Americans have continued to be right in the middle and the heart of the center of U-S technological development since we came over."
Institutions named in her honor: