Astrophysicist inspires students to reach high

Dr. Jedidah Isler, Astrophysicist, speaks about her path to success. Photo credit: Dayday Wynn

By Jack Parsley | Reporter

Dr. Jedidah Isler, the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in astrophysics from Yale, shared the story of her journey with a group of Baylor students Tuesday night as a part of the Academy Leader Development Lecture Series.

As a child, Isler was fascinated by the night sky and would frequently spend her nights outside stargazing, she said. When she was 12 years old, she read a library book about careers in science that helped her discover the field of astrophysics. From that moment on, Isler began working toward becoming an astrophysicist.

Isler described many of the hardships she faced in pursuit of her dream. She went to a college that did not offer astrophysics as a major. People regularly told her that she did not look like an astrophysicist, or that she wasn’t cut out for the profession. Isler told the Baylor students that she cried everyday for the first two years of her PhD program. Through all of this she never quit on her dream, she said.

“At some point, I needed to keep going because it was what I wanted to do, and there was nothing else that I wanted to do more,” Isler said. “No test, homework or bad day could take from me my desire to do it.”

In addition to being an astrophysicist, Isler is also an activist promoting the inclusion of women of color in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Isler has given a TED Talk on the subject and hosts a monthly web series about women of color in STEM.

“If the goal is just for me to get to my goal that is sort selfish because there are many people who can learn from my experience that I can be in dialogue with to help them do it better,” Isler said.

Isler shared some of her role models and how they helped her become the person she is today. Her mother always pushed her to pursue her dream and never let her give up, she said. Mae Jemison, the first African-America woman to go to space, inspired her as a pioneer for women of color in the field of astrophysics. Isler said that civil rights activists Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Ella Baker shaped her approach to being an activist for women of color in STEM.

“These women… really helped me formulate a sense of what I think is important as it relates to leadership,” Isler said. “Pull together a group of people, living or not, that can help articulate the things that you think are important.”

Baylor director for student leadership, education and development, Lamar Bryant, said he hopes students were inspired by Isler’s story and the obstacles she overcame.

“I think that her perspective provides a unique perspective,“ Bryant said. “Her story empowers students to help them to understand that the sky literally is the limit, and if they believe, they can achieve.”

Isler encouraged students use their education as a foundation that they can build on to create change in the world.

“The thing that I think has been the most liberating for me is the sense that anything that I was taught at any level of my academic education was just the beginning,” Isler said.