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August 2018 GWIS Lead

Tuesday, August 21, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Needa Virani
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August 2018
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
Jedidah Isler: Blazing Trails and Reaching for the Stars
Dr. Jedidah Isler will begin as an assistant professor of astronomy this fall at Dartmouth College and is currently an NSF postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics at Vanderbilt University where she studies hyperactive, supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies called blazers. She is a proud alumna of Norfolk State University’s Dozoretz National Institute for Mathematics and Applied Sciences (DNIMAS) and the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program. In 2014, she became the first African American woman to receive her PhD in astrophysics from Yale University. Her innovative and award-winning research has been supported by fellowships from the NSF, NASA, and the Ford Foundation; she has appeared on numerous radio and television programs. 

Dr. Isler is an outspoken advocate of inclusion and empowerment in STEM fields and is the creator and host of Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM (#VanguardSTEM). Her non-profit organization, STEM en Route to Change (The SeRCH Foundation, Inc.), is dedicated to using STEM as a pathway for social justice and has developed a variety of initiatives including the #VanguardSTEM online platform and web series. Dr. Isler has also worked with museums, libraries, planetariums, schools, and universities across the country to inspire the next generation of STEM leaders. Currently she serves on the American Institute of Physics National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy. Her advocacy and research have won her recognition as a Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow by the National Academy of Science (2015), a National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2016), and one of The Root Magazine’s 100 Most Influential African Americans (2016).

Dr. Isler was also awarded the GWIS Bette Barnes Early Career Scientist Honorary Membership Award for 2018.
Dr. Isler was featured on the cover of Diversity in Action in January 2016.
Photo of cover image from jedidahislerphd.com.

Why did you choose a scientific career?

I chose a career in science before I knew I was making a choice about a career in science. I simply loved the night sky, and that led me to learn about astronomy and astrophysics and, by extension, black holes. I was hooked. I made the deal with myself that I would pursue astrophysics as long as I thought black holes were the coolest thing in the Universe, and my opinion on that hasn’t yet waivered, so here I am!

Were there specific experiences from your childhood/life that you feel had a large impact on this decision?

I’d say the most important experience that cemented my own belief in my ability to pursue this career is one with my mom. When I first learned the word “astrophysics” at about twelve years old, she was the first person I ran home and told. She encouraged me without any conditions and confirmed for me that I could do this. I think her unwavering support of me from the very beginning was the start of the life that I now enjoy.

I know not everyone has that relationship with their mom, but I do think that finding a person or people that believe in your capacity to be great—sometimes before you yourself do—is critical to your long-term success. Build a community of folks who believe in YOU.


Can you describe your career path a bit?

I was definitely always interested in how the world works. I don’t think I necessarily always framed it as “science,” but now, having that language and construction in my lexicon, I certainly do think I always was interested in science. I think it’s important to note that I’m also deeply interested in people, social interactions, and social justice. I think it’s less important to only have a singular interest, which in many ways is unrealistic over decades, and important to instead find a way to address myriad interests in proportion to each other. I’ve always found a way to also be deeply involved in creating a space/culture that is welcoming and inclusive to folks that have been traditionally excluded—this population includes me personally.

I worked in retail briefly the summer after I graduated, but my mother was very adamant that my sister and I focus on our educations. She made sure we had everything we needed (and a bunch of the stuff we wanted!), and we weren’t required to work.

I took some time away from school after undergrad for a variety of personal reasons. In retrospect, I think that time was very important in confirming for me that I really did want a PhD in astrophysics. I think sometimes, when people are pushed down the academic pathway rather than fully committing to it on their own, they can get a little lost in the shuffle. For me, the time away really counted once things started to get difficult in graduate school; I knew why I wanted to be there, and that motivated me to continue for personal reasons and not just because of the peer-pressure that can sometimes arise.

Ultimately, I don’t think following a “traditional path” to science is important or relevant. I think we all have to find our way, and the more we can hold to our personal interests, the more likely we are to arrive at a place that is best aligned with our own personal notions of success. Whether you always knew you wanted to be a scientist, you went straight to graduate school, you took time off, or you majored in art history as an undergraduate; you still have the right to create the career you want at this very moment.

At the weeklong TED “Dream” conference in Vancouver, Canada, Dr. Isler speaks onstage as host of the conference’s session, titled “Imagination, Invention, Ingenuity.”
Photo by Bret Hartmen for TED.

Have you had any mentors throughout your scientific training/career, and how have these mentors influenced your path?

I have been lucky to have a constellation of mentors of various types throughout my career. I believe deeply in the “multitude of counselors” model of mentoring. That is to say, I have mentors, champions, advisors, sponsors, cheerleaders, etc. who function in very different capacities to help me to be holistically successful. That constellation of folks includes people of various identities and intersections thereof.

These folks influence my path sometimes by showing me the way, sometimes by challenging my assumptions, sometimes by asking critical questions, and more. I think it’s important for us to both seek counsel but also trust our gut, and it seems to me more straightforward to do when you're taking into account an average of many opinions rather just a single one.


What do you think it means to be a good mentor?

To make the way a little smoother for the next traveler. To identify potential barriers and remove them at all costs. To allow your shoulders to be the ones that giants stand on.

Have you had any opportunities to mentor woman students? Have you participated in any mentoring programs? How have these experiences influenced your career?

I have mentored many women students in my career. I’ve even founded a not-for-profit whose main goal is to center and highlight the voices of women of color in STEM. Creating space for women of color in STEM and for women, broadly defined, is important to me because we are still in a place where women of color in STEM are seen as an anomaly, and that is demonstrably false. I like to take up space wherever I am on behalf of women of color, women, girls, non-binary folks, and any other marginalized community. These experiences define my career and they are among my proudest accomplishments.

Have you been involved in any teaching? If so, how have teaching responsibilities influenced your science and your career path?

I have advised a student’s master's thesis and have had many mentees. I’ve also been a teaching assistant for several courses. I think teaching is super-important because it’s really the best way to learn. It’s almost a cliché at this point, but in every single class I’ve ever taught I’ve had someone ask me a question that caused me to think before I answered it. I think that’s important for both teacher and learner since those roles are very fluid.

I also consider a lot of the public speaking work I do to be teaching but in a public capacity. There I have the same goal—to make people think in ways they may not have before and to hear their questions about the universe. Members of the general public often have even better questions than folks who have chosen to major in astronomy because they don’t know what they are *not supposed* to ask.

Teaching keeps you humble, keeps you current, and keeps you grounded. It has influenced me and my career for the better in every imaginable way.

Dr. Isler was named an Emerging Explorer by National Geographic in 2016.
Photograph by Ryan Lash for TED.

What has been the most difficult situation in your career, and how did you overcome this challenge?

I’ve had many difficult situations in my career on many different levels. I think, broadly, the most difficult challenge is the persistent underestimation that I face as a black woman in astrophysics. When I first entered the field, these unspoken rumblings—microagressions, really—nearly ended my career (but for my support system!). As I’ve gotten more confident in myself and in my abilities, I’ve been able to push back HARD on the people that advance these sentiments and have become less impacted by them as a result. The realization that set me free was that no one else actually had the right or expertise to determine what my abilities were. I can be whatever I imagine myself to be, and only I decide the bounds on that.

Dr. Isler was one of twelve woman scientists highlighted by the TED Fellows program. This is an outtake from a portrait session at the TED Fellows Retreat in August 2015. Here is a link if you're interested learning more about Dr. Isler or the other eleven "Badass Scientists…Who Also Happen to be Women."
Photograph by Bret Hartman for TED.

What do you think the outlook is for future science education? Do you think there needs to be a change in how we approach training?

I think we’ll need to reboot how we educate students in STEM. First of all, we know that a purely didactic, lecture-driven approach is not the best means of learning for the vast majority of humans on the planet; at some point we’ll need to retire it. Furthermore, we silo areas of expertise in a way that isn’t consistent with the interdisciplinary problems that we are faced with in the world today. If we want to see an inclusive, relevant and impactful scientific workforce and population, we’ll need to drastically rethink science education as it is currently defined.

What advice do you have for current students?

My advice for current students is to relentlessly follow your passions. You may be so far off of everyone else in terms of your ideas that they may not be able to understand them at first. That’s ok. Remain undaunted and pursue your ideas until you’ve convinced yourself of their worth.

On the flipside, don’t worry if something doesn’t come easy to you. That’s not an indicator of ability or potential. It took me seeing quantum mechanics THREE times before any of it clicked. It’s still not my strongest field, but it’s just a matter of practicing and sticking to it. Stick to your ideas. Stick to your dreams. You are just as qualified as anyone else to dream up solutions to the problems that currently plague this planet.


Do you feel the current academic model is failing scientists? For example: the rise of adjunct faculty, the decades long postdoctoral positions, the lack of grant funding especially for new investigators?

I do feel like we have many issues with the academic model as it stands right now—not only the ones you’ve listed, but also the question of who is a scientist and who makes those assessments. The time to degree is too long, research advisors are too narrowly focused and unable to guide students on the broad set of options available to them, and more.

I think the current generation of academics has at our disposal the opportunity to challenge and overturn some of these “business as usual” models and it’s incumbent on us to act on it.

Photo from jedidahislerphd.com.
Interview by Kathryn Nelson. Copy Edited by Rozzy Finn.
Introductory head shot by Marc Hunter.

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Founded in 1921, Graduate Women in Science is an inter-disciplinary society of scientists who collectively seek to advance the participation and recognition of women in science and to foster research through grants, awards and fellowships. We comprise over 20 active chapters of more than 800 women who are "United in Friendship through Science" to support and inspire member professional goals and mutual appreciation of science. Learn more at www.gwis.org.

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