Astronaut Mae Jemison answers a question from Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos while Rush Holt looks on. Photo by Sandra Long Weaver

By Sandra Long Weaver

NASHVILLE, TN — Becoming a scientist was always something that she wanted to do, astronaut, entrepreneur and physician Mae Jemison said April 30 during Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor’s lecture series on charting the future of STEM education.

“I was always fascinated by the stars,” said Jemison, the first African American woman to fly in space.  “I was excited about the world around us. I wanted to be involved in a lot of things.”

Jemison, who was an astronaut on the Endeavor in 1992, and Rush Holt, a former New Jersey congressman and physicist and CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science participated in a discussion hosted by Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos on science advocacy, education and innovation.

During the hour long discussion in Langford Auditorium, the two scientists answered questions about how science related to politics and why it is important in education.

The audience was dominated by women who brought their daughters and granddaughters to see Jamison as well as high school and colleges students. There was even one elementary-aged student dressed in an astronaut-style suit. Jamison reached over from the stage to shake her hand.

“Science and politics are not separate,” Jemison said. We need to understand how looking at issues from different prospectives can help move us forward, she added.

What is science’s contribution to politics? Zeppos asked. “It gets them thinking in a scientific way. Where is the evidence to show why this is important, Holt said.

Jemison said it makes people think critically. “They can better assess issues,” she said. “People believe in gravity because the evidence is accessible.” 

But why is climate change so hard of an issue for scientists and politicians to come together on? Zeppos asked. 

Politicians  should be asking what’s the evidence on climate change or any issue, Holt said. “Politicians are not asking what’s the evidence.” They need to consider “did I ask a good question,” he said.

Holt added politicians didn’t consider the evidence around incarceration and drugs when the policy was made. Parents should be asking what does the evidence show about vaccinations, measles.”What does the evidence show about guns and violence? he said.

Jemison said we need better science literacy in schools. “We need hands on science,” she said. “People believed the eclipse because they could see it.”

Jemison, who also serves on the National Board for professional teaching standards, said “we need to make sure every child has access to a good education. We are abdicating our responsibility. Every school should have high standards,” not just charter or private schools, she said.

She added that young people should choose a career they really enjoy.”Be good at what you do. It allows you to move forward.”