Chancellor’s Lecture Series: STEM Stars

photo of Mae Jemison with a young girl dressed in an astronaut jumpsuit
A young admirer and space enthusiast chats with Mae Jemison after her Chancellor’s Lecture Series appearance. (Anne Rayner/Vanderbilt University)

Two giants in the science world joined Chancellor Emeritus Nicholas S. Zeppos on April 30 for the final 2018–19 Chancellor’s Lecture Series event, passionately advocating for an America that encourages its citizens to abandon simple opinion on big challenges and instead use evidence-based, critical thinking.

Mae Jemison, an engineer, entrepreneur, and the first woman of color in space, and Rush Holt, a physicist, longtime congressman, and now CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, attracted a crowd of Vanderbilt researchers, along with many local mothers and daughters—several carrying Mae Jemison Lego sets and magazine articles about Jemison to be signed, and one wearing an astronaut costume.

“The polling in America shows very high respect for scientists and overwhelming support for research, particularly biomedical research, across all demographic groups and education levels,” Zeppos said. “Why is that? What brings it home to a person?”

Jemison, who carried out bone-cell experiments aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992, told the crowd that children are born fascinated by the world around them and from an early age work to decipher its mysteries. The key is keeping them engaged with hands-on science education.

“It’s about a commitment to education and the education of all students,” she said. “What child doesn’t deserve a great education?

“We have backed away from our responsibility as adults to ensure every child has immediate access to a good education. We’ve become accustomed to doing everything on the cheap. Even though we act like we’re putting a lot of money into it, we’ll say, ‘We’re not going to be able to fund this right now.’ Children can’t do stages of their life over.”

photo of Rush Holt, Mae Jemison and Nicholas Zeppos
Rush Holt (left) and Mae Jemison (center) converse with Chancellor Zeppos about the importance of STEM education during their campus appearance. (Anne Rayner/Vanderbilt University)

Holt said our nation was founded on empirical evidence, pointing out that the Federalist Papers talk much more about “the experiment” of America than democracy.

“They were trying to say, ‘What does the evidence show?’ That should be the arbiter of ideas,” Holt said. “I don’t know how we’ll deal with what I call ‘the plight of democracy’ right now, but we can draw on the favorable opinion most Americans have of science and get them to agree why science works.”

The lecture series, held at Langford Auditorium, strives to connect the university and the Nashville community with leaders and visionaries who are shaping our world. Before the main lecture event, titled “Charting the Future of STEM Education: Innovation, Discovery, and the Critical Role of the University,” Jemison conversed with students, faculty and postdoctoral fellows connected to STEM fields in a private meeting. Holt spent his time on campus connecting with faculty in the basic sciences during a roundtable discussion.

Jemison is now principal on the 100 Year Starship Project, a study dedicated to developing a viable path to interstellar travel. She also is founder of two technology companies and the Dorothy Jemison Foundation, named for her educator mother, which supports and organizes STEM education opportunities.

Before coming to AAAS, Holt served 16 years as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District. He served on the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Education and the Workforce, establishing a long track record of advocacy for federal investment in research and development, science education and innovation.

As the 2019–20 Chancellor’s Lecture Series shapes up, several speakers are now confirmed, including actor, activist and former NFL athlete Terry Crews on Sept. 9; Star Trek actor, social-justice activist and social media favorite George Takei on Oct. 2; and Nigerian novelist, short-story writer and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Nov. 21.

Check the lecture series website for updates to the schedule at