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Dr. Jedidah Isler on bringing more women of color into STEM

Dr. Jedidah Isler has an unusual job: she studies supermassive black holes in space (they're called blazars). She’s also one of the few black women in astrophysics and is trying to change that. Dr. Isler, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College, shares her brief but spectacular take on why inclusivity is so important in science, technology, engineering and math.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Astrophysicist Dr. Jedidah Isler has been focusing her studies on blazars. These are super-massive black holes in space.

    In tonight's Brief But Spectacular episode, she emphasizes diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

  • Dr. Jedidah Isler:

    I love space, period. Hands down, I think the night sky is one of the most beautiful things in the universe.

    Learning about space was sort of the thing that I did when I was a kid. And then I found black holes, and life was different.

    (LAUGHTER)

    That's now my area of expertise. I study black holes. I study super-massive black holes, the ones that are, like, millions to billions of times the mass of our own sun. And they are marvelous.

    They have a way of forming very, very fast-moving jets very near them. And I think that the way the universe is able to be a particle accelerator, I think that's really amazing.

    When I say to people, I'm an astrophysicist, I can tell the extent to which they're surprised by that by their response to me. You're an astrophysicist?

    When I was sort of earlier coming up, I felt uncomfortable about that. Like, I felt like I should apologize that I do astrophysics. But now it's something that I sort of like to stand into. Yes, yes, let's feel what it feels like to talk to a black woman astrophysicist. It's awesome.

    I was probably 8 or 9 when I started realizing that I loved the sky. I was 12 when I found out that you could do something called astrophysics. And I marched all along just knowing I wanted to do it, and had support from my family and my friends.

    And it wasn't until I got later on in my career, high school, college, graduate school, where it became obvious to me that there weren't very many people who looked like me — that is, a black woman — interested in astrophysics that I knew.

    But when I graduated from Yale with my Ph.D. in astrophysics, studying these blazars, which you all should study, when I did that, I unwittingly became the first black woman to do so. There are so many barriers that still remain in the way of students' access and achievement.

    And, for me, I pushed through. I let my passion lead and I said, I'm going do astrophysics, no matter what. But I want to make sure that the next person doesn't have to make that same choice, that any person from any background, whether marginalized or not, can say, I love astrophysics and I want to do this thing.

    My main intervention right now is an online Web series called VanguardSTEM. The idea is that going through this experience, being a black woman in astrophysics, is unique. And so there are different challenges, there are different goals, all kinds of wins and losses that I go through just being in this body doing this work.

    And I want to make sure that we're having conversation around that. I want to make sure that the support and culture and community is there to support one another, because, often, we're one or a few in every — in any individual location. But we are actually pretty numerous across the country and across the world.

    So, the goal of VanguardSTEM is to bring women of color in particular together once a month, have conversations about mental health, about being free, about being healthy, as they're pursuing their STEM interests and identities.

    My name is Dr. Jedidah Isler, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on astrophysics and inclusion in STEM.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can find additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site.

    That's PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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