As a little girl growing up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Jedidah Isler was obsessed with the sky. “I really just thought it was beautiful,” she says, “and I remember feeling a sense of calm whenever I looked up.”
Today that same sense of calm and wonderment continues to help fuel Isler’s research on blazars, supermassive black holes with nearby jets of extremely high energy emission being spewed out. It also serves as a source of inspiration in her drive to diversify the ranks of America’s research scientists. “I care very deeply about who gets to do science—about inclusion and equity,” she says.
Isler was a member of the original cohort accepted into the Fisk–Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge program, a partnership begun in 2004 with Nashville’s acclaimed historically black Fisk University, designed to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities earning doctorates in science. Today the program has the distinction of being the nation’s top awarder of Ph.D.’s to underrepresented minority students in physics, astronomy and materials science.
In 2014, Isler became the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. from Yale’s astronomy program. And starting last fall, she began working as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in Vanderbilt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
In addition to her academic pursuits, Isler has emerged as an increasingly high-profile advocate for diversity among science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) researchers. A popular TED speaker, she wrote a widely discussed New York Times opinion piece last fall about the need for more black physics students in the wake of questioning from U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as part of a case about race-conscious college admissions. Isler also hosts a monthly Google hangout called “Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM,” in which she interviews other minority women about their careers as science and math researchers.
Like the astronomical phenomena she studies, those who work with Isler say she too is a force of nature. “She sees a goal and goes at it with a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” says Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, associate professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Fisk–Vanderbilt Bridge program. “She is undaunted. She will walk into a room and take over. She’s got that ability to persevere.”
Isler also is a standout researcher, taking over as project leader for a group devoted to blazars. “That is unheard of for a postdoc,” Holley-Bockelmann adds. “It’s amazing.”
Keivan Stassun, professor of physics and astronomy and co-director of the bridge program, still remembers being blown away by Isler when he first interviewed her. “One of the things we specifically probe for, one essential ingredient for us is that ‘right stuff’—a sense of purpose,” Stassun says. “Jedidah exemplifies this. What I remember more than anything else about her interview was how clear it was, even in that first interaction, that she was not only going to be successful, but extremely successful. By all our measures, she was a great fit.”
Isler earned her bachelor’s degree through Norfolk State University’s Dozoretz National Institute for Mathematics and Applied Sciences, a program aimed at cultivating minority scientists who want to complete graduate-level work. Afterward she took two years off, saying “some life stuff intervened,” and wasn’t sure how to get back on track.
One day, in 2005, she spotted a poster of a young African American girl created by the nonprofit American Physical Society to encourage students of color to study physics. Isler called the APS to request a copy of the poster and spoke to Arlene Knowles, the career and diversity programs administrator. Isler shared her story with Knowles, who encouraged her to apply to the then-new Fisk–Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge program. “It was perfect timing,” says Isler, who was just one of three students accepted that first year.
Isler didn’t know a soul when she arrived in Nashville, but recalls being “scooped up” by the people involved with the program, both at Fisk and at Vanderbilt. Like all program students, she took classes on each campus, which gave her an opportunity to get to know the faculty and researchers at both. Once she had completed her master’s degree at Fisk in 2007, she decided to leave Nashville rather than continue at Vanderbilt for her Ph.D.
“Just as I was becoming an assistant professor here, Jedidah was leaving for Yale. In fact, my first job here was to take her to lunch and try to convince her to stay,” recalls Holley-Bockelmann, who knew she was in a losing battle when Isler walked into the restaurant wearing a Yale T-shirt. “When she made her decision, she went with our blessing, but we kept in touch in the intervening years,” Stassun says. “There were times when I think she really turned to the community here for support.”
Isler speaks openly about how she’s been treated as a black woman in the sciences. In an interview with National Public Radio in 2013, she recounted the story of a fellow Ph.D. student who handed her a pile of dirty plates while out at a restaurant and said, “Here. Now go and do what you’re really meant to do.” In another case, she recalled a professor saying openly in a faculty meeting that students of color entering the field could be expected to be weak.
Those kinds of remarks are one reason Isler advocates so passionately for African American students—and African American women in particular—through the STEM Education Coalition and various mentoring programs. “I think it’s important to recognize that simply having physical bodies enrolled doesn’t change the problem,” she says. “They need to be cared for and considered. It’s not OK for a student to feel damaged along the way.”
Isler believes part of the problem is that faculty members are not always aware this kind of bias exists—or, if they are aware, they’re unwilling to act on it. At Vanderbilt the physics and astronomy department embraces what Stassun refers to as “wraparound mentoring,” with multiple people assigned to each student.
“A student starting the program has a peer mentor—a student who is a couple of years ahead of them—as well as a more senior mentor who is close to finishing their Ph.D., and a faculty peer,” Stassun explains. “A few years ago we realized we were missing the postdoc mentor, a near peer who is closer to the student than the faculty. So when Jedidah decided to bring her NSF postdoc fellowship to Vanderbilt, she became part of that postdoc mentoring program.”
The role of mentor has taken on a special meaning for Isler, who completed a two-year Chancellor’s Faculty Fellowship at Syracuse University last summer before coming to Nashville. “Mentoring students is the norm at Vanderbilt. I applaud the physics and astronomy department for its leadership on this. The students here are being well cared for,” Isler says.
Most recently, she has begun developing an alumni network for the Fisk–Vanderbilt Bridge program. “Alumni networks are extremely important for knowledge transfer and strategies,” she says. “Our bridge program is roughly 10 years old, which means we are just now getting a critical mass of students who have gone into enough different fields to compare notes.”
Equally important to Isler is the science itself. Her postdoctoral fellowship is funded by the NSF for three years, enabling her to research blazars and better understand the jets they shoot out nearly at the speed of light. The NSF grant also funds educational and outreach programs, which Isler is fully embracing. “There is such great astrophysical research happening at Vanderbilt,” she says. “For me, the school was the perfect fit for the kinds of things I wanted to do.”
In addition to being an astrophysicist, one other thing remains on Isler’s bucket list: to become an astronaut. “I think space is amazing and the epitome of adventure,” she says. “I’m a Trekkie. I love it. It’s the final frontier.” Asked how her husband, who teaches legal history at The Maxwell School at Syracuse, feels about her going into space, Isler says, “He’s like, ‘OK, if you take a couple of laps around the planet, that’s cool. But if you go to Mars, I’m coming with you.’”
Judging by what Isler has accomplished so far, her husband may just have to live up to that promise.
Bridge to Ph.D.
The Fisk–Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge program aims to improve demographic representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The program is a partnership between historically black Fisk University and Vanderbilt to increase the number of underrepresented minority students engaged in Ph.D.-level STEM research.
Launched in 2004, the two-year program has built a detailed, research-based toolkit to support underrepresented minority students on their path to earning a Ph.D. Rather than selecting students based only on the usual metrics of test scores or grade point averages, the bridge program also looks at how the students display “grit” and how they tackle academic challenges.
Students are given a clear road map of what is required of them to apply to and be admitted to a Ph.D. program, and they work closely every step of the way with a mentor on their studies and collaborative research projects. Mentors are trained to identify possible trouble points and to step in quickly to help students stay on track, as well as connect them to the broader scientific community.
As a result of the program, Vanderbilt has become the leading producer of underrepresented minority Ph.D.’s in astronomy, materials science and physics. As of spring 2015 the program had graduated 16 Ph.D.’s, all of whom have gone on to careers in academia, industry and national laboratories.