Photograph by Ryan Lash
Jedidah Isler studies celestial objects that are hard to even imagine, much less scientifically explore. Her specialty is blazing quasars, or blazars: supermassive, hyperactive black holes in distant galaxies.
Isler, currently a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University, is the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale. She’s a champion of inclusion in the sciences, aiming to create a world where anyone, regardless of race, gender, or background, can pursue their interests.
As part of that advocacy, she hosts VanguardSTEM, a monthly web series of conversations with women of color in the field. Here, she talks about going from gazing with wonder at the sky as a girl to her supercharged career today. —By Christina Nunez
When I was a child [in Niagara Falls, New York, and later Virginia Beach, Virginia] I had the privilege—which I recognize now was a privilege—to actually see the sky, and be able to see stars. I always found the night sky fascinating and beautiful and just calming in a way that I couldn’t explain as a child.
When I was about 12, I was looking through books at the library to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up—because for me it seemed like that was the time when one should know. I was looking through a book on science and technology, and since astrophysicist starts with A, it was at the beginning of the book. It’s an incredibly cool word for a 12-year-old. Then when I saw all the things that they did I was like, I have to do this. This is what I want to do.
Of course, I didn’t know exactly how to get there or what to do, but I just tried to follow the interest, and the plan became clearer as I went. I had a really strong support system. My mother and my family were extremely supportive of my interest.
They are what occupy most of my brain, most of the time. They are black holes that are a billion times the mass of the sun and take on a thousand times more matter than, for example, our galaxy’s “normal” supermassive black hole, which I think is already amazing; that’s just bananas. But beyond that, when you have these black hole systems that are that massive, and they’re taking on that much material, some interesting things start to happen around them beyond the interesting things that happen around black holes in general.
Blazars produce these relativistic jets, which are streams of charged particles and light. You’ve got this stream of particles and light accelerated nearby the black hole, moving at 99.99 percent of the speed of light [pointed directly at the Earth]. But don’t worry, they are far enough away to never do any damage to us on the planet!
I’m trying to understand the physical mechanisms that produce the relativistic jets we see from these really interesting celestial objects using the variations in light patterns across the electromagnetic spectrum.
Astrophysics is one of those exploration sciences. It’s much more about fundamental exploration of our universe than the idea that I’m going to be able to turn this into, like, a pocket accelerator. That’s not going to happen. There’s no app for that [laughs].
But it is really, really exciting to think that if we can push on our understanding of physical laws, and push on our ability to observe these things, we can find out some fundamental processes of the universe. To me that is the thing that we get out of it; that’s what’s important about it. That we have a brain that allows us to know, and we have a curiosity that forces us to try to get to know it. So I don’t have a product for you, but exploration is pretty high on my list of reasons to do it.
I think a lot of things need to happen, from the very top in terms of institutional, systemic change all the way down to very simple family-level, neighborhood-level interventions that can help one find and persist on a path. There are practices and traditions that are currently alive and well in our system that are designed to create an uneven playing field. There are ways students that come from traditionally underrepresented groups are treated differently, are not given access to the same kind of resources that other students are.
So there are structural things that need to happen. There’s also the sense of providing opportunity to engage with these fields. There were some people who didn’t believe that a person like me, whatever that means, could do this work. So having access to a library, having support systems, having people who believed in me both personally but also in the educational space, I think all those things are important.
I want to see the best possible science done. The only way to do that is to make sure that everyone who has an interest in it is allowed a seat at the table. By artificially cutting out people based on race or gender or identity or physical ability or neurodiversity, then we are literally limiting the quality of the work we do as part of the scientific enterprise. By championing inclusion, I am actually championing STEM excellence.
That’s a really good question, and it’s one that I think about often. I very much feel like my lived experience, both personally and professionally, mimics the kind of work I want to do going forward. I love astrophysics, I love understanding the universe, I love taking mental rides through a blazar system and trying to understand it—seeing it in my mind’s eye and turning it around and twisting it. But I also really love engaging what I like to call emerging scholars who are interested in getting to their goals, whether it’s in astrophysics or other STEM disciplines, and thinking about how I can also create access to opportunity and make a way for others coming behind me. I’m looking to continue a trajectory that allows me to exercise both of those muscles regularly.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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