Saturday, February 11, 2017

Jedidah Isler - astrophysicist

Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and what better way to celebrate than by honoring a kickass woman who divides her time between studying black holes and helping diversify science!

Jedidah Isler knew she wanted to be an astrophysicist when she was 12 years old. She was looking at a list of careers, trying to decide what she wanted to do when she grew up, and saw "astrophysicist" and it was a done deal. She'd always had a love of watching the stars, and when she realized she could do that as a job, she did everything in her power to make it happen.

Absolutely determined to make her dream come true, she took all the right math and science classes though high school, earned her bachelor's in Physics, graduating Magna Cum Laude, from Norfolk State University, earned a master's in physics at Fisk University, and, finally, in 2014 she earned a Ph.D. in physics from Yale, becoming the first African American woman to do so.

Now, to the delight of her inner 12-year-old, she studies blazars or "blazing quasars" - supermassive hyperactive black holes spewing an enormous energy jet directed straight at the Earth.

In 2015, she was selected as a TED Fellow. And she even applied to the astronaut program at NASA, who should be announcing their newest class of astronaut trainees very soon.

Aside from her work studying space, she's also devoted to pressing matters her on Earth, showing "how STEM can be a tool for global leadership and social change. I want to build partnerships that, in turn, trigger a tsunami of STEM practitioners from underrepresented backgrounds." As part of her mission, she is a tireless advocate of inclusion and empowerment across racial and gender lines in STEM.

"Women of color face unique barriers because of their position at the intersection of race and gender, not to mention class and socioeconomic status. Sometimes racial and gender discrimination is overt; other times, it’s not. Either way, it's harmful. Addressing these issues is just as important as the astrophysical work I do."

And she knows what she's talking about. Throughout her academic career she faced plenty of discrimination. While in her first year at Yale, she went out to dinner with some of her classmates. At the end of the dinner, one guy gathered up all the plates and handed them to her saying, "Here, now go and do what you're really here to do." She says that it's incidents like these (some might call them microaggressions) that make it difficult for women and minorities to react. They have to strike a delicate balance between getting angry and ignoring it. "If I get really mad, then I'm the angry black woman. But if I give too much concession, then I'm sort of too conciliatory, and it was just weird. It let me know that this is not a safe space for me."

She eventually figured out her own way past these kinds of situations, and now works to make sure others don't have to go it alone. "Whether I like it or not, I'm one of only a few women of color in this position. Addressing these larger issues of access to education and career exploration are just as important as the astrophysical work that I do.

Watch her TED talk, and read her TED blog post about why the above photo of black women scientists is so important to her.

Read a great interview with her talking about science AND her natural hair!

Read a recent story about her from Vanderbilt, where she's a post-doc candidate.

Listen to an NPR Code Switch story about her work to improve diversity in science while at Yale.

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