When Jedidah Isler was a little girl, she liked to steal away at night, to the backyard, where she’d lie in the grass and gaze up at the inky firmament. She wasn’t wishing on shooting stars, though. She was trying to figure out how the cosmos worked, from the orbit of Earth to galaxies far away.
Some things don’t change. Today, Isler is an astrophysicist hunting for answers about planetary systems far from our own. She specializes in one of the universe’s most mysterious features — black holes — in particular, blazing quasars. These so-called blazars are massive, capable of swallowing material a thousand times faster than regular old black holes and of emitting jets at nearly the speed of light. Little was known about blazar emissions until Isler came along and published her findings during her graduate work. Blazars are some of the universe’s most efficient particle accelerators.
Check out Jedidah Isler’s TED Talk, above.
It turns out, though, that Isler is not just “at the vanguard of astrophysics and active galactic nuclei” research, says astrobiologist Keivan Stassun, Isler’s mentor. She’s also on a parallel mission to help mentor the next generation of minority students. Isler was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics at Yale, in 2014, and she is determined to make the path less rocky — and less uncommon — for other women, especially women of color.
Isler’s interest in the celestial started long before she ever encountered the word “astrophysics.” In the library one day she cracked open a book on careers — with the mission of picking a path at 12 — and began scanning the pages. She landed on astrophysicist almost immediately. Case closed. For the rest of Isler’s education, it was a given that she’d become what she hoped to be. The only questions were logistical: which honors math classes to take and what extracurriculars to participate in to make it happen. And Isler wasn’t an introverted bookworm; she was the high-achieving type with lots of friends who could deftly navigate homecoming court and honors science.
As she was about to start college, Isler suffered a setback: Her father left, as she recounts in her TED Talk, and the household financial situation disintegrated; Isler, her sister and their mother “were thrust out of the relative comfort of middle-class life.” She matriculated at Norfolk State nonetheless, on a full scholarship, and graduated with a B.S. in physics. Following graduation, though, the personal overwhelmed the professional and, Isler says, “I fell through the cracks.”
That’s when she came across a poster by the American Physical Society’s Committee on Minorities in Physics featuring a young Black girl looking studiously at equations. “Oh my God, that’s me!” she remembers thinking. Isler wrote to the APS, asking for a copy of the poster (it still hangs in her office, on the wall behind her desk) and relating her life story. From a committee member, Isler found about the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program, a partnership between two Nashville universities that seeks to diversify the ranks of science. She credits the program, which graduates more Black astronomy and astrophysics Ph.D.s than any other American university, for getting her professional pursuit back on track.
Isler’s work is the type supported by the likes of NASA and the National Science Foundation — Isler is an NSF fellow at Vanderbilt — for its relevance both to the origins of our galaxy and how to make our own, man-made particle accelerators more efficient.
A self-described “relentless dreamer,” Isler talks about her work in terms of love. It’s a love she doesn’t think she’ll ever fall out of, despite many years of being treated like an outsider within her discipline. She wants to ensure other Black physics students have mentorship in ways she lacked, so she’s using her NSF fellowship to craft an alumni network for the 11-year-old Fisk-Vanderbilt program. In her spare time she runs Vanguard STEM, an online mentoring community for women of color in STEM.
Isler is still looking to the universe for new opportunities. She’s applied to be an astronaut twice now. The first time she hadn’t even met the basic graduate degree requirement but applied anyway, she tells me with a smile. The second time? Candidates will start hearing back in the coming months. Maybe one day she’ll be staring down at Earth instead of up into the heavens.