Dr. Jedidah Isler – Astrophysicist

“Science changed me, and allows me to make contributions to the world and everyone, regardless of their identity should have that right”. – Dr. Jedidah Isler, Black Holes, Blazars, and Women of Color in Science|Nat Geo Live, [9].

Profile

Dr. Jedidah C. Isler. Source: [2.1]

Name: Dr. Jedidah C. Isler

Born: Virginia Beach, Virginia, United States

Degree(s):

BS Physics, Magna Cum Laude, Norfolk State University

MA Physics, Fisk University

MS Physics, Yale University

PhD in Astronomy, Yale University

Occupation: Researcher in Astrophysics, consultant on ethnic diversity in STEM – focusing on black women in physics.

[1][2.2][3][4]

Who is Dr. Jedidah Isler?

Dr. Isler is an Astrophysicist whose research focuses on quasars, blazars and supermassive black holes. She is the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in physics from Yale university and is also heavily involved in working with ethnic diversity in STEM, with a focus on giving opportunities to black women in physics.

[1][2.2][3][4][6]

Early life

Dr. Isler speaking about bringing more WOC into STEM. Source: [8]

Growing up in Niagara Falls, New York and later Virginia Beach, Virginia Dr. Isler was lucky enough to live in areas with little light pollution – so at night she was able to easily see the stars and because of this she was always drawn to the night sky throughout her youth. Eventually, when she reached the age of twelve, she set about trying to work out what she wanted to be when she grew up, as many young people do; and by looking at books in her local library she found one on careers. [1][3]

As Astrophysicist begins with an A it was the first suggestion in the book, and this resonated with Isler. It gave a name to her general love and interest in the stars and she states this was the point she really understood that being an astronomer is what she wanted to be. [1][3]

Following this she had a fairly regular life, she has a sister, went through elementary and high school, and although she didn’t know exactly how she was to become an astronomer – as it is a very specific career – she states that she just followed her interest, and then the path became clear. [1][3]

Unfortunately, becoming the scientist she wanted to be was not easy. At the time only 18 black women in the United States had ever gotten a PhD in physics and of those 18 only one had gotten a PhD specifically in astrophysics, the field she wished to study – so the odds were already against her. Additionally, due to unknown reasons, Islers’ father left just before she was to start college. This sparked financial issues that threatened to prevent Isler from getting a higher education, as she immediately dropped from being from a two income middle class family to a single income family struggling to make ends meet. Despite these difficulties, she was able to overcome them by getting a fully funded position of study and three years later she received a BS in physics from Norfolk State University. [1][4.1,4:10]

Again due to her financial hardships (that approximately 60% of black women face in America) she “fell through the cracks”. After getting her bachelors she had to work for two years, simply to help support her family, but eventually she saw a poster (which she still has hanging in her office) that would change the path of her life. It depicted a young black girl looking studiously at some physics equations and it advertised a scholarship for BME in STEM. Immediately she enrolled on the Dozoretz National Institute for Mathematics and Applied Sciences (DNIMAS) programme, “a program aimed at cultivating minority scientists who want to complete graduate-level work”This was an excellent opportunity as like it states, it works to help advance the careers people of colour who wish to pursue a life working in STEM academia. She was one of the first three students to become a member of the Fisk-Vanderblit Master’s-to-PhD programme (a programme designed to increase the number of women of colour advancing into STEM degrees) and through this was able to graduate with a MA in physics. [1][4.1,4:20]

Through her excellent standard of work and crucially the opportunities opened up to her as a black woman via the previous programmes, she was accepted to study physics at Yale University. [1]

As amazing an achievement as this was (and is) it did not come without its drawbacks. Much of the time she was the only woman, all of the time she was the only black student, during her MS and this continued into her PhD. Additionally Dr. Isler suffered through many racist instances. These included backhanded comments trying to undermine her position as a scientist and even being given a pile of dirty plates and told to “go and do what she is really here to do” by a white male student in her class. Furthermore, she states how these incidents are sadly not a unique occurance. In a study done at UC Hastings 100% of 60 women of colour reported facing racialised gender bias in the workplace, including being mistaken for the janitorial staff. This “mistaken identity” was not reported by any of the 497 white women interviewed, and clearly illustrates how women of colour in STEM experience more barriers than just white women or just men of colour do. [1][4.1,6:25]

Following this she remarks that there is nothing inherently wrong with working a janitorial position, and in fact many of her ancestors worked these jobs, and without their hard labour she would not have been able to go to universitybut that the comments made by the white colleagues were clearly meant as rude, malicious and racist remarks made in a vile attempt to “put her in her place”. [4.1]

Despite these horrific events, she continued in her research and was able to gain a PhD in Astrophysics from Yale – marking her as the first black woman to earn the title since the university was founded. (Yale was founded on 09/10/1701, 312 years prior her graduation). Her PhD thesis was entitled “In Like a Lamb, Out Like a Lion: Probing the Disk-Jet Connection in Fermi Gamma-Ray Bright Blazars”. It earned the Roger Doxsey Dissertation Prize from the American Astronomical Society and can be found here: [Link, LinkLink, 2.3]. [1][2.2][4.1][4.1,12:10]

Career and research interests

Dr. Isler. Source: [https://www.vanguardstem.com/about/]

Following her graduation she completed a two year fellowship at Syracuse University, after which she became a postdoctoral fellow at both the Harvard University-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Center for Astrophysics and Vanderbilt University National Science Foundation (NSF), Astronomy & Astrophysics. In addition to this, she is currently an assistant professor, in physics and astronomy, at Dartmouth College. [1][2.2][2.3][3][6]

As expected, her research focuses on what she specialised in during her PhD, mainly quasars, blazars and supermassive black holes. These black holes have thousands of times more matter than the “regular” black hole at the centre of our galaxy, and as they attract large amounts of material (due to their huge gravitational pull) they induce many extreme effects. One of these effects are that they have twin jets that shoot out material at relativistic speed (up to 99.99% the speed of light) and her work focuses on understanding the physical mechanisms that produce these jets as currently they are not completely understood.  [1][2.2][2.3][3]

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Ethnic diversity in STEM

Despite overcoming her own barriers and beginning an amazing career, Dr. Isler had not forgotten the immense difficulties faced in getting where she is now. Additionally, within her own research she realised quickly how the idea of the lone cishet white male scientist, writing equations on a board in a room, is simply not the reality of how STEM research is done today – and is in fact a very inefficient and poor practice. [9]

Science research is largely done in collaboration between massive groups of people, with many different fields overlapping, and thinking of science in this way reminded her of her own intersectional (overlapping) identity – that is being a woman and a person of colour. As illustrated in the previously mentioned racalised gender bias and economic adversity Dr. Isler faced, having an intersecting identity (being a black woman in physics) proved to have unique challenges which white women and men of colour alone done not face. [9,6:00][8]

Furthermore, the validity of people of colour in STEM, especially women of colour is constantly being questioned, with many institutions now questioning their students on the benefits of a diverse workplace and expecting them to bring “something extra” to the table compared to their white peers. Dr. Isler recalls in an article written for The New York Times[7]:

“Last week during oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case about the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. posed two questions: “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” Followed by: “I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?”

Their questions left many black scientists, myself included, reeling from the psychological blow.

As a black woman and astrophysicist, I immediately became defensive of my own worthiness, and that of the black students I mentor and support every day.

It would seem that the best rebuttal to Chief Justice Roberts’s query about the “benefits of diversity” is to describe a scene where a black student brought a “unique perspective” that improved the learning experience for everyone.

But the truly insidious part of his argument is not predicated on the need to furnish examples. Obviously, black students march into classrooms all over this country and blow physical concepts out of the water with their individual intellects. The truly damaging part of Chief Justice Roberts’ question is the tacit implication that black students must justify their presence at all.

Black students’ responsibility in the classroom is not to serve as “seasoning” to the academic soup. They do not function primarily to enrich the learning experience of white students. Black students come to the physics classroom for the same reason white students do; they love physics and want to know more. Do we require that white students justify their presence in the classroom? Do we need them to bring something other than their interest?”

Primarily to combat the lack of intersecting identities – especially women of color – being represented in STEM Dr. Isler started an online web series called Vanguard conversations with women of colour in STEM: Website: https://www.vanguardstem.com/ Twitter: @VanguardSTEM.

Every month or so there is a meeting where people can confirm and affirm their interests, reminding us that anyone can be anything that they want. This is especially helpful to those with intersecting identities, as many can find themselves as “the only one” a majority of the time, leading to a lot of imposter syndrome. The point behind this is to build a community and to take advantage of modern technology to build it online – as many scientists are spread all over the globe. [8][9]

Dr. Isler continues her excellent work in both physics research and advocacy for women of colour in STEM today. She is active online and links to all of her excellent work can be found in the references below.

References:

References are categorised by the following types:

🗒️= Written

🎧= Audio

💻= Video

[1]🗒️ – Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jedidah_Isler

[2]🗒️ – JedidahIslerPhD.com – http://jedidahislerphd.com/ 

[2.1]🗒️ – About page – http://jedidahislerphd.com/about/ 

[2.2]🗒️ – CV – http://jedidahislerphd.com/brief-cv/ 

[2.3]🗒️ – Research interests – http://jedidahislerphd.com/research-interest/ 

[3]🗒️ – NationalGeographic.org [Interview] – https://www.nationalgeographic.org/explorers-festival/2016/emerging-explorers/jedidah-isler/ 

[4]🗒️ – TED.com profile – https://www.ted.com/profiles/507596/fellow

[4.1]💻 – TED Talk [The untapped genius that could change science for the better] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NdSVi38RM8

[4.2]💻 – TED talk [How I fell in love with quasars, blazars and our incredible universe] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzZJuEDQ1a0 

[5]🗒️ – NationalGeographic.org 2016 emerging explorer honour – https://www.nationalgeographic.org/find-explorers/jedidah-cherie-isler

[6]🗒️ – Dartmouth College profile – https://physics.dartmouth.edu/people/jedidah-c-isler

[7]🗒️ – The ‘Benefits’ of Black Physics Students, written by Dr. Isler for The New York Times – https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/17/opinion/the-benefits-of-black-physics-students.html 

[8]💻 – Dr. Jedidah Isler on bringing more Women of Colour into STEM, PBS newshour – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAGPi6tBwZ0 

[8.1]🗒️ – [Transcript] Dr. Jedidah Isler on bringing more Women of Colour into STEM, PBS newshour – https://www.pbs.org/newshour/brief/289083/jedidah-isler 

[9]💻 – National Geographic: Black Holes, Blazars, and Women of Color in Science|Nat Geo Live – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBRrcSkK6iE 

For more information on Dr. Isler see the following links:

Her Twitter: https://twitter.com/JedidahIslerPhD 

Her Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jedidahislerphd/

National Geographic Kids: Astrophysicist: Jedidah Isler|Best Job Ever: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUWXbyQojnY 

Authors Note: As Dr. Isler stated in her article for The New York times, students of colour should not be required to bring anything other than their interest when it comes to wanting to study and complete research in STEM fields, but when you do build an intersectional community the quality and diversity of research increases, proving that hiring people of colour is not only morally correct, but fundamentally improves science.

Furthermore it is important to treat intersectional identities as separate entities, as they face their own unique struggles. Black women are NOT a mix of white women and black men and cannot be treated as such.

Finally science is not free of the bias and prejudices of those who created it. The past is full of unethical practises that has lead to the science we have today, and is perpetuated in the fact that an overwhelming number of scientists are cishet white men and women. We must actively examine these issues and not cover our eyes with the (frankly lazy) “science is objective” lie to build a better future and improve the quality of research in all of STEM.

For more information on scientists of colour please visit our resources page or read through the rest of our blog. We are constantly updating both.

Written by Karel Green. For more information see the about page or follow her on Twitter @thisismeonline.

 

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