Astronaut Bernard Harris Jr. spoke to middle school students on campus

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Dr. Bernard Harris Jr. spoke in front of middle and high schoolers in the Stone Center on Thursday, April 15th. Dr. Harris was the first African-American Astronaut to conduct a spacewalk and currently works for Vesalius Biocapital, a venture capital firm that invests in medical startups.

Harris was the first African-American astronaut to walk in outer space, serving as the crew doctor during NASA missions in 1993 and 1995.

“When I have someone come into my doctor’s office at home, I’ll say, ‘Hey Ms. Johnson, please sit down,’ but in space, I had to adjust and say, ‘Hey Joe, float over here,’” Harris said.

Harris spoke Thursday at an event co-sponsored by the UNC School of Nursing’s Office of Multicultural Affairs and the nonprofit Global Health Connections International at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center .

The speech, titled “An Inspirational Journey,” was mostly attended by students from James E. Shepard Magnet Middle School in Durham , and Harris emphasized encouraging minorities to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). He started the Harris Foundation in 1998 to support minority education in STEM fields.

Global Health Connections International is a Raleigh nonprofit lead by the former director of sales at the Dow Chemical Company, Rick Copeland , who attended the speech. The nonprofit fosters an interest in STEM among minority students.

“A lot of black and Latino kids are intimidated of pursuing a STEM career, and we try to show them that STEM is something that is involved in their everyday life and that it isn’t something to be scared of,” Copeland said.

Rumay Alexander ,the director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at the nursing school, echoed many of Copeland’s sentiments to the middle schoolers in her introduction of Harris.

“You are going to hear about what it takes to be a scientist — to be successful — and oftentimes people think success is different because you are a minority,” Alexander said. “So today we want to show you a successful scientist who looks like you.”

Harris spoke about the importance of an education, alluding to the opportunities given to those with good degrees.

“You can be wealthy with an education, and wealth is more than just money; it is family, it is having someone to love, it is having the ability to do what you want to do,” Harris said.

Harris amazed the students with a description of what space does to the body, telling them about how zero gravity takes a toll on the skeletal and muscular system.

“I described in the Mayo Medical Journal that mine and my crewmates’ legs looked like chicken legs,” Harris said.

After finishing his powerpoint, Harris opened the floor up to the students and answered questions ranging from the length of time that a person can survive in space to what the Northern Lights look like from outer space.

Harris wanted students to take away a greater appreciation for STEM education, specifically for minority children.

“In this country where technology is driving everything we do, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure in all communities that our kids are educated in math and science,” Harris said.

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