From left: Rice President David Leebron, Audrey Odwuor and Dr. Mae Jemison. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Wiess College senior Audrey Odwuor’s academic prowess, service and career goals have earned her the 2017 Dr. Mae C. Jemison Award for Academic Achievement and Public Service.

Each year, Rice University honors a graduating senior who exemplifies the values and ideals of the commencement speaker. This year’s speaker was Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. A physician, engineer, educator, entrepreneur and former astronaut, Jemison is the principal for the 100 Year Starship, a global initiative to ensure the capability for interstellar human space flight by 2112.

“I am incredibly honored to win this year’s Student Commencement Speaker Award,” Odwuor said. “I have admired Dr. Jemison for years and have always hoped to accomplish things as amazing as she has. Dr. Jemison is ambitious, selfless and unbelievably talented and smart, and I am so humbled to receive an award for exemplifying the values I believe have made her so successful.”

During her studies at Rice, Odwuor majored in Earth science because she “wanted the knowledge and skills to better understand and protect the planet.”

However, Odwuor originally planned to attend medical school, and she trained as an EMT and began volunteering with Rice Emergency Medical Services.

“I was hoping for some experience in the medical field, which I got, but more importantly, I got a sense of fulfillment and purpose working as an EMT,” she said. “More than studying medicine, I loved being able to make a patient’s life at least a little better.”

After an internship in the NASA Student Airborne Research Program working on an atmospheric science project, she realized that as an Earth scientist, she can do so much to help not only patients but the planet we all call home.

“My goals shifted from generally wanting to help people to wanting to do whatever I could to improve the quality of life on Earth,” she said.

In one of several recommendation letters for the award, a nominator touted Odwuor’s leadership, community engagement and generosity.

“Ms. Odwuor is committed to increasing the climate literacy of the Rice community and her fellow Texans — whether through scientific research or through activism,” the nominator wrote. “She was the chair of the Scholarly Activities Committee of Texans for Climate Change Action – exhibiting leadership and thoughtfulness in a state where confronting climate change is challenging the status quo and at a university where climate and climate change are not taught extensively throughout the curriculum. Tackling this global issue required not only an understanding of the topic but also the ability to communicate effectively with multiple stakeholders.”

The nominator also lauded Odwuor for her dedication to her fellow students through her involvement with the Rice Emerging Scholars Program, designed to acquaint incoming first-year students with the demanding pace, depth and rigor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses at Rice; and Rice EMS, where she volunteered as an education assistant and CPR instructor in addition to her work as an EMT.

“[Her] attitude of service to others is prevalent throughout [her] extracurricular activities,” the nominator wrote. “I know of no other senior undergraduate who exemplifies the characteristics desired in the recipient of this award to the extent that Ms. Audrey Odwuor does.”

Following graduation, Odwuor will spend the summer interning with DEVELOP in NASA’s Applied Sciences Program, where she will use satellite data to understand extreme air quality events in Houston. Following a gap year, she plans to attend graduate school for atmospheric or environmental science. She hopes to become a research scientist at NASA and go to space as a NASA astronaut.

“Dr. Jemison not only inspired my dreams of space travel, but she has also given me hope that the goals I have are absolutely achievable,” Odwuor said. “I am excited for what’s to come after graduation and am especially motivated by this award, which reassures me that I’m taking the right steps toward realizing my dreams.”

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