This HBCU Alumna is the 1st Black Woman to Graduate from Yale with a PhD in Astrophysics

Last Updated on May 27, 2023

Jedidah C. Isler is the first Black Woman to Graduate from Yale with a PhD in Astrophysics
Jedidah C. Isler, Ph.D., Photo credit: Ryan Lash/TED

Jedidah Isler was interested in the heavens from the time she was 11 or 12. She had a telescope as a kid, which her sister bought her for her birthday one year. But she didn’t get a chance to pursue astronomy formally until she was in her doctoral program, although she had a number of summer internships and research projects in astronomy starting when she was an undergrad.

Neither my undergraduate school [Norfolk State University in Virginia] nor the school where I got my first master’s degree [Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.] offered astronomy majors. The closest I could get was physics, which served me well, since I needed to know physics in order to successfully navigate astronomy anyway,” Isler says.

At Fisk, Isler was part of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s to Ph.D. Program, which aims to increase the number of doctorates among students of color in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. The program was designed for the students to get master’s degrees at Fisk, then move on to Vanderbilt for Ph.D.s, but Isler headed for Yale instead.

When she finally had the chance to pursue astronomy as a core course of study, Isler says, “it was pretty amazing. Getting to visit and even point large research telescopes was an incredible experience. By then I knew for sure that I had made the right decision in pursuing this field.”

VIDEO: Astrophysicist Jedidah Isler talks about the wonder of supermassive hyperactive black holes — called blazars, or blazing quasars — during TED Fellows Talks.

Now Isler is at SU as a Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow, her position supported by a number of sources, but primarily an SU ADVANCE grant and the Chancellor’s Office. Her position lasts for two years, with the goal that she transition into a tenure-track position in the Physics Department at the University.

Isler studies hyperactive supermassive black holes that reside at the centers of galaxies, called blazars. Some of these black holes have relativistically moving streams of charged particles that happen to be oriented toward the Earth line of sight. “We call these streams of particles jets,” Isler says, “and the fact that they point directly toward us allow a unique vantage point to study fundamental jet physics.”

She explains it this way. “Think about a basketball spinning on your finger with the black lines pointed up and down—a loose analogy for the area surrounding the black hole. Then imagine a water hose shooting out from both the top and the bottom, where the black lines converge. Those are the jets and we want to know how they form and how they work.”

Now that Isler is at Syracuse, she has begun working with the SU LIGO group on campus, itself a part of a large international collaboration. She plans to utilize her astrophysical expertise to contribute to the team's ongoing search for gravitational waves.

As much as she loves astrophysics, Isler is very aware of the barriers that still remain for young women of color going into science. “It’s unfortunately an as-yet-unresolved part of the experience,” she says. She works to lower those barriers, and also to improve the atmosphere for women of color once they become scientists, noting that “they often face unique barriers as a result of their position at the intersection of race and gender, not to mention class, socioeconomic status and potentially a number of other identities.”

While Isler recounts instances of overt racial and gender discrimination that are jaw-dropping, she says more subtle things happen more often. Isler works with the American Astronomical Society’s commission on the status of minorities in astronomy.

She also believes that while things will improve as more women of color enter the sciences, institutions must lead the way toward creating positive environments for diverse student populations. That is why she is active in directly engaging young women of color: for example participating in a career exploration panel on behalf of the Women’s Commission out of the City of Syracuse Mayor’s Office, meeting with high-achieving middle-school girls. She is also on the board of trustees at the Museum of Science and Technology (MOST).

“Whether I like it or not, I’m one of only a few women of color in this position,” she says. “Addressing these larger issues of access to education and career exploration are just as important as the astrophysical work that I do.”

Source: Cyndi Moritz, Syracuse University

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