Engineers Australia International Women’s Day breakfast sends us to space and back to earth again: Dr Mae Jemison

What do the Camino de Santiago, art and science have to do with addressing global socio-cultural issues?

This is not really a standard Little pink typewriter and / or International Women’s Day (IWD) post, although it links the two.

Each year on IWD (for as long as I can remember being aware of IWD / as a high school kid), I at the very least acknowledge the day, often attend an event and / or celebrate the women in my life or life’s path.

Depending on what’s going on in my life – business, personal or otherwise – I decide how I’m going to acknowledge and / or celebrate IWD.

This year, it was again Engineers Australia’s event that piqued my interest and fitted my schedule.

It piqued my interest as it’s the industry I specialise in, and I’m just not sure when I’d again have the opportunity to hear from:

“Entrepreneur, engineer, physician, former astronaut, social scientist and educator – and first woman of colour to travel into space” – Dr Mae Jemison.

Now I’m not a space junkie, but I still wanted to hear her story.

As a female creative in STEM, as well as being part of the smaller percentage of gender in the industry, I’m also in the smaller percentage of skill set in the room.

So I wasn’t surprised to be seated with engineers and a physicist. Way to make me feel dumber-er, but great company no less!

While the morning – and indeed, Dr Jemison’s presentation – centred on her career and STEM-ish things, it really brought us back to earth in that in emphasised the power of connection – of people, of knowledge, of vast and diverse experiences as human beings.

Pretty philosophical, to be honest – which I love.

It’s taken me a while to get to this blog as a) life and its busyness happens and b) I wanted to give it the time and space (absolutely no pun intended!) it deserves.

A little digression. Around the time of the event – in the lead-up to, during and after – I’ve had all these signposts (literal and metaphorical) pointing me towards the Camino de Santiago.

I can’t explain them, but it’s been calling me for years, and it just keeps getting stronger.

As I walked into this event, I took a photo of the wall of the stairs leading up to the stadium / event rooms.

I took the photo as I’m always documenting bits and pieces of my life (yes, including ridiculous food pictures!) and I wanted to take something different from the usual stadium snap.

It’s from the poem, Kaya (Noongar for hello or yes) and is etched into 68 pre-cast concrete panels that circle the perimeter of the podium level of the stadium.

The 17-verse poem weaves together 11 verses of Noongar prose with six verses of English.

The entire composition features at the stadium’s eastern entrance.

This is the part I snapped:

From far away and foreign places

From close to home with open faces

We bring our gifts of breath and song

Travelling, we are many peoples,

But our footsteps make us one.

Another Camino-esque sign in my face!

But on with the show.

What really stood out to me was Dr Jemison’s love and passion for both art and science and how they work together – and inform each other. How she was torn between the dream of being in space (and just “knowing” from such a young age that she was going to do it, as incomprehensible or feasible it possibly should’ve been!) and being a dancer.

Part of her bio reads: “Dr Mae Jemison is at the forefront of integrating the physical and social sciences with art and culture to solve problems and foster innovation.”

So as well as all the inevitable science / STEM content, I was blown away by this merging of art and science.

My whole life has been about being a traditionally right-brain creative in a traditionally left-brain STEM world – although we all know there is as much left and right brain in both science and art.

In fact, just before the presentation, my table-mates and I were talking about the need for both creatives and scientists to share knowledge – the technical / subject matter experts and the creatives to draw that information from them in storytelling.

Cue: ten minutes into the presentation Dr Jemison talking about exactly this!

Her talk also incorporated several inspirational quotes, including:

“Traveler, there are no paths

Paths are made by walking”

When that flashed on the screen, my brain went: WHAT?! IS GOING ON?

She talked about challenging and changing “the norm”, and using art and science to address social justice issues. And rather than people within STEM circles wearing its intellectual “exclusivity” as something of a badge, providing access to all and inviting others into the conversation.

She talked about apathy, and about measurement being based on “our” / decision-makers’ values, rather than being inclusive of other people’s values. She talked about the need for diversity and inclusion in STEM – not in a tokenistic way, but in a way that enables us to see things from different perspectives. Different people have different experiences and ask different questions. Makes total sense. She talked about how inviting others into the conversation to “participate” energises others to care – to address apathy and global socio-cultural issues. Make it “experiential, not experimental”.

Look, she did talk about space and what-not, but it was really these unifying concepts that shone through. Taking us to space while bringing us back to earth – and how we, collectively, across geographies and generations, can create change.

This whole talk may not have been what I was expecting, but then, I didn’t really have expectations; I just took it in my stride – like a camino.

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