All About Space
Isler’s fervour for blazars led to her becoming the first African American woman to receive a PhD from Yale University
Jedidah Isler is an exceptional astrophysicist and an excellent modern-day role model for any young women of colour, who are pursuing a career in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Her studies of the universe in a field that continues to face racial and gender bias are nothing short of truly remarkable.
In 2015 Isler presented a TED talk where she spoke eloquently about race and gender within STEM, including her experiences when working towards her doctorate. This talk heavily revolves around metaphorical intersections and the liminal space in which great things happen. Her examples include how stars are born at the intersection between dust and gas, but also how she has lived her life in the liminal space between dreams and reality, race and gender, poverty and plenty, science and society.
At the age of 12, Isler knew she wanted to be an astrophysicist, and it was this passion that drove her forward, even when things looked bleak. At that time, according to Dr Jamie Alexander’s archive of African-American women in physics, there were only 18 black women that had received a doctorate within a physics-related discipline in the United States. A year before Isler’s birth, a black woman received a doctorate in an astronomy-related discipline, becoming the first to do so.
Roughly 60 per cent of women of colour have to overcome a financial barrier in order to pursue their education, and Isler was one of them. Luckily Norfolk State University, Virginia, provided her with full funding, and she went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in physics. After two years out of school, she then went on to gain a master’s degree via the help of the FiskVanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program. This led her to Yale University in Connecticut.
During her studies Isler was subjected to some cruel behaviour that she says ostracised her, and would certainly discourage anyone from wanting to continue. This is sadly not the first time a woman of colour has had to endure such treatment in a STEM-related environment. This has been confirmed in a recent study, where all 60 women of colour interviewed by Joan C. Williams, professor of law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, said that they were subject to racialised gender bias in STEM – a horrible statistic when considering the supposed ‘intelligence’ of the people in the field and at such a prestigious university.
This did not deter Isler’s dreams of becoming an astrophysicist, however, and she continued her studies and research into blazars. After studying these mind-bogglingly enormous black holes, which fall under the astrophysical genre of Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), she became the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in astrophysics from Yale University in 2014.
Her thesis is titled In Like a Lamb, Out Like a Lion: Probing the Disk-Jet Connection in Fermi Gamma-Ray Bright Blazars.
Isler is now an assistant professor of astrophysics at Dartmouth College, Hanover,
New Hampshire, and she continues to strive for improvement when it comes to the treatment of women of colour in STEM subjects. In fact, she is also the founder, executive producer and host of Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM, or Vanguard STEM.