First African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale
Image Source: NASA (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)
Receiving a telescope as a birthday gift around the age of 12 has kept Jedidah Isler looking toward the sky ever since. Both Isler’s undergraduate and master’s degrees are in physics, as neither Norfolk State University or Fisk University had degree programs in astrophysics. It wasn’t until she began working on her doctorate at Yale that she could truly focus on her passion.
Completing her program in 2014 she became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale. While she acknowledges this as an important first in the broad picture of women of color in STEM it was more of a personal achievement for her and those supporting her in this challenging endeavor. As a Postdoctoral Fellow at Vanderbilt University she studied supermassive hyperactive black holes at the center of galaxies, called blazars, which release streams of charged particles, called jets, that are oriented towards the Earth. These jets move at close to the speed of light and have a tremendous amount of energy. Scientists like Isler are working to understand these space based particle accelerators and how they create these jets from the materials available to them.
Isler is also focused on advocating for and inspiring students from underrepresented backgrounds in the sciences to pursue a future in STEM fields. She speaks at various organizations across the United States to be a voice of encouragement to the next generation of STEM leaders. In hopes of providing a safe space for women of color to discuss their work in STEM fields as well as the challenges of working in these fields she started Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM, an interactive virtual panel discussion series on the topic, which has become a thriving online community aiming to shift STEM culture toward a more equitable, just enterprise.
For outstanding work in astronomy and education by an African American Scientist she was awarded the 2022 Arthur B.C. Walker II Award from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. In late 2022 it was announced that she would be joining the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as a principal assistant director for science and society.
Written by Angela Goad