Meet Dr Jedidah Isler: The First Black Woman to Graduate from Yale with a PhD in Astrophysics

Originally published on BGLH (interviewed by me).

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Dr. Jedidah Isler on graduation day.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Jedidah Isler at a mutual friend’s wedding this summer.  She was so humble, that I had no idea I was meeting the first black woman to graduate from Yale with a PhD in Astrophysics.  When I did find out her history-making accomplishment (via Instagram), I had to reach out to her for an interview.

When and how did you fall in love with astrophysics?

J: I first fell in love with the night sky, because it was breathtakingly beautiful. I had the privilege of growing up in a place where you could see many stars and I found them utterly captivating. I would sit outside for hours just watching them. It wasn’t until 12, though, that I learned that you could *be* someone who studies the night sky as a career, i.e. an astrophysicist. Once I figured that out, I was hooked! It was just a matter of figuring out how to get there. I think I learned about black holes when I was in high school and they kept my interest for a long time, even before I had the opportunity to study them formally.

When did you learn that you would be the first black woman to graduate from Yale with a PhD in Astrophysics? What thoughts went through your mind?

J: It’s interesting, because soon after I had arrived at Yale it became apparent that there hadn’t been very many black people (and certainly not black women) in the program in recent history. Once this realization started to wash over me, I actually stopped asking about it. It was too overwhelming to deal with at the time while also trying to complete my coursework. It wasn’t something that I investigated again until it was almost time to graduate, when I started looking earnestly at the records and talking to the University archivist. Together we determined that there was no indication that another black woman had ever graduated from the Astronomy department, which would make me the first.

It was at once an exciting and weighty realization. I had to sit quietly with it for a long time because the ramifications were so great. I was proud that I had accomplished this thing that I had dreamt about since I was a little girl, but I also felt such a strong sense of responsibility to show the way to other young women of color (and students of color, more broadly) who were also interested in astrophysics. I remember thinking, “if not me, then who?” Not because I’m the only black woman (or woman of color) in astrophysics, because I am certainly not, but because going to and through Yale felt like a particularly powerful platform to begin to advocate on behalf of this community that I hold so dear and am honored to be a part of.

I’ve also had people ask me how I felt when I actually walked across the stage, as it relates to being the “first.” Honestly, I felt most strongly about the personal accomplishment and humbled by the amount of effort that my family and friends had put in to see me through this moment. I felt sheer elation at accomplishing something so challenging. After I processed that, I started to think about the social implications and how it might impact others. To be honest, though, I have been completely blown away by the outpouring of support from the black community in particular, but from people all over the world who have reached out to congratulate me and cheer me on. It’s been quite a ride and I am enjoying this new adventure!

Photo-credit-Ryan-Lash
Jedidah Isler (L) and several other black female 2015 TED fellows: LaToya Ruby Frazier, Somi Kakoma, Aomawa Shields, Camille A Brown and Danielle Lee. Photo credit: Ryan Lash.

What has been your experience being natural in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field?

J: I actually went natural the first year I started graduate school at Yale. It was part of my asserting my identity and I’m really glad I did. I find being natural empowering and it makes me feel strong and beautiful. There haven’t really been too many negative encounters with having my hair natural, other than sometimes people reaching out to grab it without permission. Otherwise, I find it to be a non-issue most of the time. (Although I should say it produces a sense of camaraderie with young black girls in particular, when I speak at middle/junior/high schools.)

I also find it interesting that a lot of the black women astrophysicists I know are also natural. Much like many other fields and in the larger context, black women in STEM are also increasingly going towards natural styles. So I’m part of a tribe and feel honored to be able to display my hair in all it’s “straight-outta-my-skull” glory. 🙂

What are your plans and goals now that you have completed your PhD?

J: The traditional “academic” path is to obtain a postdoctoral fellowship, which I am currently in at Vanderbilt University as a National Science Foundation Fellow. After that, the standard path is to begin a tenure-track faculty position at a college or university. Because my PhD is in astrophysics, I would be tasked with teaching physics and astronomy/astrophysics depending on the department offerings. I’d also be interested in teaching interdisciplinary courses that combine STEM and social justice/education access topics.

I am also very interested in engagement and education access, especially as it relates to students of color in STEM and women of color in STEM, in particular. These communities are rife with students who have primary interests in STEM, but may be discouraged from pursuing such fields or not have enough information or role models to know how to navigate the (quite confusing) path to STEM degrees. That’s where I hope to have some impact. By providing compelling role models on a wide range of STEM disciplines and many different STEM experiences. (I’ll talk about that below with #VanguardSTEM.)

Furthermore, I’m also very interested in impacting the culture that students of color or other marginalized groups face as they pursue these degrees. The disciplines are challenging enough, students should not also have to face undue burdens due to their identity.

Ultimately, I’m interested in working at places and with people who are interested in these same issues and who want to put in the hard work required to solve some of the toughest challenges of our time. I think black women are particularly suited to solving these “intersectional” issues given the fact that we inhabit the space between race and gender. Don’t get me started…I’m all about women of color, STEM and education access. I’ll likely end up in the place that allows me to optimize all of my interests most compellingly. 😉

Do you have any advice for black girls and women who are interested in pursuing a STEM career?

J: Do eeeeiiiitttttt!!!! Simple as that. Many times the interests are there, but the encouragement and confidence is not. My single recommendation is to keep going! Keep trying it! Keep looking for people to help guide you along the way. Keep feeding your interest, keep experimenting. Just keep going.

It’s not easy and I get a lot of requests for mentoring and advice. The best advice I can give (other than KEEP AT IT!) is to develop a robust support network, including personal connections, professional contacts and aspirational role models that can help you determine your path to success (and keep you motivated when you falter).

I think often black girls and women face significant discouragement from people when they say they want to pursue a STEM career out of fear, ignorance or malice. None of these motivations are sufficient and I am constantly encouraging young women to push past (and through) the naysayers. It won’t always be easy, but it *is* worth it and it can change your life. As it changes yours, though, always be on the lookout for ways you can improve things for others and your community. In this way, the victories and opportunities you amass on your way through will empower, enlighten and uplift your community too!

Do you have any upcoming projects to which we should look forward?

J: The thing I’m most excited about right now (other than writing journal articles about blazars!) is the new monthly google hangout series I host called “Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM.” It’s a lively, rotating panel discussion with an amazing set of current women of color in STEM and my hope is to connect them directly to emerging women of color in STEM. It’s a great time and we share advice, encouragement and tips for how to be successful in the world of STEM, in particular, but much of the advice can be applied much more broadly. We were even lucky enough to have you, Chinwe, on the show! Hopefully you can speak to how much fun we have! 🙂

We run the show the first Tuesday of the month at 7pm ET (our next show is October 6!). You can find all the ways to connect with us below, and I hope you’ll tune in and ask all the questions you have about pursuing a STEM degree! We are also interested in all of the BGLHers who are in STEM disciplines to participate in the show, as well as having all of your readers watch and participate by asking questions and such. Maybe we could even have an episode about STEM fields relating to hair and products!

Where/how can we find you online (i.e., website, instagram, etc.)?

J: You can find me all over the interwebs! I’m mostly on twitter and instagram, but I’m also a regular on fb and slowly working my way into the periscope world. On all outlets you can find me at @jedidahislerphd. My website is www.JedidahIslerPhD.com and you can find out more information about the Vanguard series on twitter (@VanguardSTEM), facebook (group: Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM) or following #VanguardSTEM. Please to reach out and say hey — I’d love to hear from you! 🙂

And yes, the “Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM” was fun!!  Do check out Dr. Isler’s next conversation in October.

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