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Jedidah Isler

The Untapped Genius That Could Change Science for the Better


Jedidah Isler knows the significance of intersections. She believes that some of the most interesting things of the human experience occur at the intersections. “There’s freedom in that in-between, freedom to create from the indefiniteness of not-quite-here, not-quite-there, a new self-definition,” she explained.

As Isler explained, she has lived the entirety of her life in the in-between. In the liminal space between dreams and reality, race and gender, poverty and plenty, science and society. She is both African American and female, and dreamt from a young age of pursuing a career that few black women had ever earned a degree in.

That career in question? Jedidah Isler is an astrophysicist. She studies blazars, supermassive and hyperactive black holes that sit at the centers of massive galaxies and shoot out jets nearby those black holes at speeds approaching the speed of lights. Isler dreamt of that title since she was 12 years old.

Defy the Odds
According to Dr. Jamie Alexander’s archive of African-American women in physics, only 18 black women in the United States had ever earned a Ph.D. in a physics-related discipline, and the first black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in an astronomy-related field did so just one year before Isler’s birth.

After her college graduation with a bachelor’s degree in Physics, Isler says she “fell through the cracks.”

“It was a poster that saved my dream, and some really incredible people and programs. The American Physical Society had this beautiful poster encouraging students of color to become physicists. It was striking to me because it featured a young black girl, probably around 12 years old, looking studiously at some physics equations. I remember thinking I was looking directly back at the little girl who first dared to dream this dream. I immediately wrote to the Society and requested my personal copy of the poster, which to this day still hangs in my office.”

The STEM Intersection
Continuing her discussion on the value and importance of intersections, Isler explained her view that STEM itself is an intersectional term and cannot be truly appreciated without considering the close space between disciplines. Science cannot be accomplished in the absence of mathematics. Engineering requires the application of basic science and math to the lived experience. Technology is built on the foundation of math, engineering, and science. Math is the ‘Rosetta Stone’ role, decoding and encoding physical principles of the world. STEM isn’t STEM without each individual piece.

Isler explained that the purpose of discussing her background is twofold:

First, to speak directly to every marginalized individual, be they black, Latinx, indigenous, First Nation, or any woman or girl, finding themselves resting at the intersection of race and gender that they can be anything they want to be. “Do not think for one minute that because you are who you are,” Isler said, “you cannot be who you imagine yourself to be. Hold fast to those dreams and let them carry you into a world you can’t even imagine.”

The second purpose of her discussion was to discuss the intersection many of the modern world problems find themselves at with STEM. Many single-faceted issues of the modern world have been solved, and those that remain generally require investigating the space between disciplines to create multifaceted solutions for tomorrow. As Isler questions, “who better to solve these liminal problems than those who have faced their whole lives at the intersections?”

Top of the Class
Jedidah Isler, a woman who spent her life at intersections between race and gender and her career and stereotyped norms for someone like her, is proud of her accomplishments. She proudly stated:

“Despite implicit and explicit questions of my right to be in an elite space, I’m proud to report that when I graduated, I was the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics in Yale’s then 312-year history.”

She intends to help others follow her path. As part of a small but growing group of women of color in STEM, she acknowledges the new perspectives and new ideas she and other individuals bring to the most pressing issues of the world, be it “educational inequities, police brutality, HIV/AIDS, climate change, genetic editing, artificial intelligence, and Mars exploration.”

To conclude her discussion, Isler sums up her thoughts:
“Simply put, we cannot be the most excellent expression of our collective genius without the full measure of humanity brought to bear.”

This story was written based upon Jedidah Isler’s 2015 TED Fellows Retreat address. To view her original address, click here.

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