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GPAC hosts former astronaut, pro football player

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By Mac Trammell
The Lipscomb Pitts Breakfast Club recently hosted a truly one of a kind guest speaker.
Leland Melvin, the only person to be drafted into the NFL and to have flown in space, spoke to an audience of hundreds at the Germantown Performing Arts Center last week, recounting his life’s achievements and how he overcame failure in order to inspire others to greatness.
Melvin spoke of his early days in Lynchburg, Va., where he was born, with his two parents who were middle school teachers. During his childhood, he learned to build things, like a skateboard, and became intimately passionate about chemistry when his mother bought him a chemistry set.
From there, he became a high school wide receiver, earning a scholarship to play for the University of Richmond. He graduated having majored in chemistry and was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the NFL draft.
A hamstring injury kept him from playing, both in Detroit and later on in Dallas, so he decided to get his masters degree in neuroscience engineering at the University of Virginia.
After his NFL setback, he decided to go to NASA, or as he joked, “one door closes, go to NASA.”
He was on pace to become an astronaut when he had an unexpected severe training injury that left him deaf for some time. He was indefinitely excluded from becoming an astronaut, even though his hearing repaired.
After the Columbia accident in 2003, when many of his friends perished, Melvin needed to find a way to carry on their legacies. He got another chance to become an astronaut, and in 2008 he flew to the International Space Station where he was a robotics expert. He flew to the Space Station again in 2009 and logged a total of 565 hours in space.
When he finished his career in space, Melvin became head of NASA Education and the co-chair for the White House’s Federal Coordination in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). He is now the host of the Lifetime show, Child Genius, and is a judge on the newly rebooted television series Battle Bots.
Since his days as the head of NASA Education, Melvin has been deeply involved in promoting STEM education.
“STEM is in everything that you do,” he said. “So you can make a STEM lesson out of walking outside and looking at the space station going overhead [which you can do by going to the ISS website to find out when you can see it]. You can talk about velocities, you can talk about orbital mechanics, you can talk about trajectories, just from walking outside your house.”
But, Melvin likes to add an ‘A’ for Arts into the mix, making his goal STEAM. Musicians Will i Am and Mos Def have partnered with Melvin to promote STEAM, as well as another well-known name in the music industry.
“Quincy Jones interviewed me in space,” he said. “Quincy said that the two true absolutes in life are the fact that math and music both use the right and left side of your brain at the same time.”
The combination of the sciences, mathematics, and the arts, Leland says, leads to all-around well-roundedness.
“Being a creative, innovative person, knowing how to do many different things is very important to you leading a complete and full life,” he said.
Melvin’s advocacy for STE(A)M programs fits in nicely with the Breakfast Club’ heavy involvement in education. By investing in education, the organization is investing in the future of Memphis, in a better future for Memphis.
The man behind the Breakfast Club events is Jeremy Park. Lipscomb Pitts bought the franchise rights for the Breakfast Club in Memphis in 2007 and afterwards morphed the idea from a purely business networking event to a philanthropic venture whose model is based off St. Jude’s.
“Our mission is to be a force for good, pure and simple,” Park, the president of the Lipscomb Pitts Breakfast Club, said. He would later explain that, while the Breakfast Club is still a great business networking tool, that he hopes it is also a philanthropic networking tool as well.
“Most cases and most cities you have a silo effect, where everybody’s working in their own little area, but they don’t necessarily step out of that,” Park said. “They don’t realize that there are other groups doing similar work and [that they can] find synergy there and work together. And also to cross-pollinate all these ideas.”
The key to cross-pollination, though, is getting all of the ideas in one place. That’s why the Breakfast Club hosts eight breakfasts with national speakers a year for free.
“My world is all about ‘how do we raise expectations?’” Park said, “So, as you’re looking around the city, your expectation rises, like, ‘good isn’t good enough. We can do really amazing things. We can send people to the moon from Memphis.’”