On a recent early spring evening, an unusual scene unfolded on the riverside steps of Walker Memorial: Members of MIT’s Black Women’s Alliance (BWA) and girls from the Cambridge-based Science Club for Girls (SCG) orbited a woman in a bright blue NASA jumpsuit. The group had gathered to meet the owner of the suit, astronaut Yvonne Cagle, before her community-wide talk, “Women in Space.” As Cagle chatted with the crowd, posed for photos, and signed autographs, it was clear that her enthusiasm for her first-time MIT visit was matched only by that of the women and girls who had come to this very special private reception.
Shortly afterwards in Building 34, MIT junior and BWA co-chair Alyssa Napier welcomed the entire MIT community to the event, which was hosted by the Black Women's Alliance, the Office of Minority Education, and Publicis Groupe. She was followed by Kate Pickle, senior director for programming at SCG, an organization for girls from underrepresented communities that seeks to encourage their excitement about and self-confidence in STEM education.
Sophomore Tiera Guinn, co-chair of BWA, realized a dream by introducing Cagle. As a major in aeronautics and astronautics with a career goal to send someone into space, Guinn nearly teared up as she described Cagle’s career path: Cagle spent 15 years as an Air Force flight surgeon before shifting gears and completing two years of training and evaluation at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in order to serve as a space shuttle flight mission specialist.
Cagle explained what seemed like an abrupt career change by saying, “I wasn’t going nearly fast enough, or nearly high enough” as a flight surgeon. She attributed her career path to two motivations. One fateful night in July 1969, when she and her father watched the first Apollo moon landing, she realized she wanted to have her footprints on moon dust as well. This childhood desire to navigate the macro-community of the universe was complemented by a desire to help people, by focusing on the micro-community of the human body.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at San Francisco State University, Cagle completed her doctorate in medicine at the University of Washington. She is currently a consulting professor for Stanford University’s cardiovascular medicine and electrical engineering departments and has worked on a number of medical devices that seem inspired by science fiction: "SCANADU," "Smithsonian Rex," and "LIFT." SCANADU allows a doctor to assess physiological problems with a patient, as well as administer proper medicine dosages. Smithsonian Rex is a robot that harvests organs or other human parts that a patient might need. And LIFT, Cagle claimed, could reduce a two-hour workout to 20 minutes by targeting the system of the body that repairs injuries. As a proof of concept, she pointed to her flexed arm and explained, “I’m in my 50s, and there should be flab here!” Indeed, there was no flab.
Throughout her talk, Cagle emphasized that her road to success was paved by remarkable female pioneers such as Shirley Ann Jackson, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Her dynamic presence and her encouragement of women and girls to pursue the possibilities of the future — summed up in her motto, “space for all” — were an inspiration to everyone.
After her remarks, Cagle fielded questions from the audience. Each question was prefaced by an expression of gratitude that she had taken the time to come to MIT and share her experiences. One audience member invited her to come back when MIT’s hosts the FIRST Robotics Competition, which allows high school students to develop code that is then tested in space. In recognition of her achievements and to offer their thanks, BWA co-chairs made Cagle an honorary member of the Black Women’s Alliance.
“Dr. Cagle’s presentation was amazing,” said DiOnetta Jones Crayton, associate dean and director of the Office of Minority Education. “Her journey and her experiences were an inspiration to us all. Her entire life is a testimony and a reminder that we should always follow our dreams. More importantly, her research will truly change the world that we live in. … It will transform our lives on and off-planet.”