Kimchi in space

The story goes, Soyeon Yi could not go without kimchi in her diet, so when it came time to blast off, she packed kimchi, becoming not only the first Korean astronaut to make it to space but also the woman who introduced kimchi to the galaxy.  For National Women’s History Month, JEI wants to recognize researcher, scientist, astronaut, and all-around star, Soyeon Yi. JEI Learning Center is all about empowering young children, and this includes young girls who dream of growing up as accomplished as the women celebrated in March.

Before Yi was the first astronaut in 2008 to represent South Korea–as a woman, to boot–she studied her way out of a small rural village in which gender discrimination prevented women from getting a basic education. While her grandmother could not read or write and her mother stopped her education before middle school, Soyeon Yi had a lifetime of learning ahead of her. She started to assist her father with fixing machines at a young age and grew too interested in science and engineering to stop there!  

She started with some vocational training from her father and moved onto academic excellence! Soyeon Yi attended the specialized Gwangju Science High School before moving on to the prestigious Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), a South Korean university likened to the United States’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After studying mechanical engineering as both an undergraduate and graduate student, she studied biosystems for her doctorate. At KAIST, she was one of two women in her class, which is why there was not even a women’s bathroom at the time. At 24, Yi was one of the youngest and possibly the only woman presenting her research in biosystems at an event in Japan that invited a total of 30 to 40 countries. Despite this feat as an accomplished researcher, Yi still faced prejudice as people would often mistake her for the secretary or say directly to her that they preferred working with male researchers.  

Not letting this stop her, she continued to break many barriers. While South Korea was working on a space program, she was eager to apply despite friends calling her crazy and saying she should focus on getting her Ph.D. Even after she was accepted, she found things difficult training in Russia as a woman. She said, “It wasn’t easy [for the others] to accept me. I could feel it, I could read their faces—especially soldiers who didn’t have enough education and enough experience working with women.”

At the age of 29, she was promoted from backup astronaut to Korea’s first official astronaut! In an article for Cosmopolitan, she thinks back to how much has changed since her grandmother’s time. She notes, “Within 60 years, Korean women’s history was totally changed. I am so proud to be a part of that.” During the intensive training period, Yi learned about the rocket as it would be her responsibility to fix it if anything broke in space. She also trained physically to walk in zero gravity and eventually grew comfortable working with the others.

As a matter of fact, Soyeon Yi spread South Korean culture to the other astronauts! She brought Korean space food to share with her companions, who were all from different nations, and this included her own nation’s main staple, kimchi! Other astronauts fell in love with Korean food; one of them even told her, “I’m going to need Korean food for the rest of my flight.” This was the first and last time she went on an outer space adventure (she retired from the program a few years later for personal reasons), but there is no doubt she had a fun time and learned a lot from this experience.

Soyeon Yi is a great example of a woman who prevailed and boasts an impressive track record as a female researcher, scientist, and an astronaut. Nothing stands in Soyeon Yi’s way, which is why she is a woman to celebrate this Women’s History Month.

If you want your children to have the same resilience and can-do attitude as Soyeon Yi, make sure to find a JEI Learning Center near you. We offer a variety of programs that will build a foundation for an education and career as impressive as hers by promoting healthy curiosity and confidence in young children. Maybe someday, your own daughter will be celebrated on National Women’s History Month alongside big names like Grace Hopper and Soyeon Yi!