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TED Fellows Retreat 2015

Jedidah Isler: The untapped genius that could change science for the better

Filmed:

Jedidah Isler dreamt of becoming an astrophysicist since she was a young girl, but the odds were against her: At that time, only 18 black women in the United States had ever earned a PhD in a physics-related discipline. In this personal talk, she shares the story of how she became the first black woman to earn a PhD in astrophysics from Yale -- and her deep belief in the value of diversity to science and other STEM fields. "Do not think for one minute that because you are who you are, you cannot be who you imagine yourself to be," she says. "Hold fast to those dreams and let them carry you into a world you can't even imagine."

- Astrophysicist
Jedidah Isler studies blazars — supermassive hyperactive black holes that emit powerful jet streams. They are the universe’s most efficient particle accelerators, transferring energy throughout galaxies. Full bio

Great things happen at intersections.
00:13
In fact, I would argue
that some of the most interesting things
00:16
of the human experience
occur at the intersections,
00:20
in the liminal space,
00:23
where by liminal
I mean the space in-between.
00:25
There's freedom in that in-between,
00:29
freedom to create from the indefiniteness
of not-quite-here, not-quite-there,
00:32
a new self-definition.
00:38
Some of the great intersections
of the world come to mind,
00:41
like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris,
00:44
or Times Square in New York City,
00:46
both bustling with the excitement
of a seemingly endless stream of people.
00:49
Other intersections,
00:55
like the Edmund Pettus Bridge
in Selma, Alabama,
00:56
or Canfield Drive and Copper Creek Court
in Ferguson, Missouri, also come to mind
00:59
because of the tremendous energy
at the intersection of human beings,
01:05
ideologies and the ongoing
struggle for justice.
01:10
Beyond the physical
landscape of our planet,
01:15
some of the most famous celestial images
are of intersections.
01:17
Stars are born at the messy
intersection of gas and dust,
01:21
instigated by gravity's irrevocable pull.
01:25
Stars die by this same intersection,
this time flung outward
01:29
in a violent collision of smaller atoms,
01:33
intersecting and efficiently fusing
into altogether new and heavier things.
01:36
We can all think of intersections
that have special meaning to us.
01:42
To be intersectional, then,
01:47
is to occupy a position
at an intersection.
01:49
I've lived the entirety of my life
in the in-between,
01:54
in the liminal space
between dreams and reality,
01:59
race and gender,
02:03
poverty and plenty,
02:05
science and society.
02:07
I am both black and a woman.
02:10
Like the birth of stars in the heavenlies,
02:13
this robust combination of knowing
results in a shining example
02:16
of the explosive fusion of identities.
02:20
I am also an astrophysicist.
02:24
I study blazars, supermassive,
hyperactive black holes
02:27
that sit at the centers
of massive galaxies
02:32
and shoot out jets
nearby those black holes
02:34
at speeds approaching the speed of light
02:37
in a process we are still trying
to completely understand.
02:40
I have dreamed
of becoming an astrophysicist
02:45
since I was 12 years old.
02:48
I had no idea that at that time,
02:51
according to Dr. Jamie Alexander's archive
of African-American women in physics,
02:53
only 18 black women in the United States
had ever earned a PhD
02:59
in a physics-related discipline,
03:03
and that the first black woman to graduate
with a PhD in an astronomy-related field
03:05
did so just one year before my birth.
03:10
As I journeyed along my path,
03:14
I encountered the best and worst
of life at an intersection:
03:16
the tremendous opportunity to self-define,
03:21
the collision of expectation
and experience,
03:24
the exhilaration
of victorious breakthroughs
03:28
and, sometimes,
03:30
the explosive pain of regeneration.
03:32
I began my college experience
just after my family had fallen apart.
03:36
Our financial situation disintegrated
03:42
just after my father's
departure from our lives.
03:44
This thrust my mother, my sister and I
03:48
out of the relative comfort
of middle-class life
03:51
and into the almost constant struggle
to make ends meet.
03:54
Thus, I was one of roughly
60 percent of women of color
03:58
who find finances to be a major barrier
to their educational goals.
04:02
Thankfully, Norfolk State University
provided me with full funding,
04:07
and I was able to achieve
my bachelor's in physics.
04:10
After graduation, and despite knowing
that I wanted a PhD in astrophysics,
04:14
I fell through the cracks.
04:19
It was a poster that saved my dream,
04:22
and some really incredible
people and programs.
04:25
The American Physical Society
had this beautiful poster
04:29
encouraging students of color
to become physicists.
04:32
It was striking to me
because it featured a young black girl,
04:36
probably around 12 years old,
04:39
looking studiously
at some physics equations.
04:41
I remember thinking
04:46
I was looking directly back
at the little girl
04:48
who first dared to dream this dream.
04:51
I immediately wrote to the Society
04:53
and requested my personal
copy of the poster,
04:55
which to this day
still hangs in my office.
04:59
I described to them in the email
my educational path,
05:03
and my desire to find myself again
in pursuit of the PhD.
05:06
They directed me to the Fisk-Vanderbilt
University Bridge Program,
05:11
itself an intersection
of the master's and PhD degrees
05:14
at two institutions.
05:18
After two years out of school,
they accepted me into the program,
05:21
and I found myself again
on the path to the PhD.
05:25
After receiving my master's at Fisk,
05:29
I went on to Yale to complete my PhD.
05:32
Once I was physically occupying
the space that would ultimately give way
05:35
to my childhood aspirations,
05:39
I anticipated a smooth glide to the PhD.
05:41
(Laughter)
05:44
It became immediately apparent
05:46
that not everyone was thrilled
to have that degree of liminality
05:48
in their space.
05:52
I was ostracized by many of my classmates,
05:54
one of whom went so far as to invite me
to "do what I really came here to do"
05:57
as he pushed all the dirty dishes
from our meal in front of me to clean up.
06:02
I wish that were an isolated occurrence,
06:08
but for many women of color
06:11
in science, technology, engineering,
and mathematics, or STEM,
06:13
this is something they have long endured.
06:19
One hundred percent
of the 60 women of color
06:21
interviewed in a recent study
by Joan C. Williams at UC Hastings
06:24
reported facing racialized gender bias,
06:29
including being mistaken
for the janitorial staff.
06:32
This mistaken identity was not reported
06:37
by any of the white women
interviewed for this study,
06:40
which comprised 557 women in total.
06:42
While there is nothing inherently wrong
with a janitorial position,
06:47
and in fact my forefathers and foremothers
were able to attend college
06:51
because many of their parents
worked these jobs,
06:55
it was a clear attempt
to put me in my place.
06:57
While there was certainly
the acute pain of the encounter,
07:02
the real issue is that my appearance
07:06
can tell anyone anything about my ability.
07:08
Beyond that, though, it underscores
07:13
that the women of color in STEM
do not experience the same set of barriers
07:15
that just women
or just people of color face.
07:21
That's why today I want to highlight
women of color in STEM,
07:25
who are inexorably, unapologetically
07:29
living as the inseparable
sum of identities.
07:32
STEM itself is an intersectional term,
07:37
such that its true richness
cannot be appreciated
07:40
without considering
the liminal space between disciplines.
07:43
Science, the pursuit
of understanding the physical world
07:47
by way of chemistry, physics, biology,
07:50
cannot be accomplished
in the absence of mathematics.
07:53
Engineering requires the application
of basic science and math
07:57
to the lived experience.
08:01
Technology sits firmly
on the foundation of math,
08:03
engineering and science.
08:07
Math itself serves
the critical role of Rosetta Stone,
08:09
decoding and encoding
the physical principles of the world.
08:13
STEM is utterly incomplete
without each individual piece.
08:18
This is to say nothing
of the enrichment that is realized
08:23
when STEM is combined
with other disciplines.
08:26
The purpose for this talk is twofold:
08:30
first, to say directly to every black,
Latina, indigenous, First Nation
08:33
or any other woman or girl
08:38
who finds herself resting
at the blessed intersection
08:40
of race and gender,
08:44
that you can be anything you want to be.
08:46
My personal hope is
that you'll become an astrophysicist,
08:50
but beyond that, anything you want.
08:53
Do not think for one minute
08:56
that because you are who you are,
08:59
you cannot be
who you imagine yourself to be.
09:02
Hold fast to those dreams
09:05
and let them carry you
into a world you can't even imagine.
09:08
Secondly, among the most
pressing issues of our time,
09:12
most now find
their intersection with STEM.
09:16
We have as a global society solved
09:20
most of the single-faceted
issues of our time.
09:22
Those that remain
require a thorough investigation
09:25
of the liminal space between disciplines
09:29
to create the multifaceted
solutions of tomorrow.
09:32
Who better to solve these liminal problems
09:36
than those who have faced
their whole lives at the intersections.
09:39
We as thought leaders and decision makers
09:44
must push past
the first steps of diversity
09:46
and into the richer
and more robust territory
09:50
of full inclusion and equal opportunity.
09:53
One of my favorite examples
of liminal excellence
09:57
comes from the late Dr. Claudia Alexander,
10:00
a black woman plasma physicist,
10:03
who passed away this past July
after a 10-year bout with breast cancer.
10:05
She was a NASA project scientist
who spearheaded the NASA side
10:10
of the Rosetta mission,
10:14
which became famous this year
for landing a rover on a comet,
10:16
and the 1.5 billion dollar
Galileo mission to Jupiter,
10:20
two high-profile scientific victories
10:25
for NASA, the United States
and the world.
10:28
Dr. Alexander said it this way:
10:32
"I'm used to walking between two cultures.
10:35
For me, it's among the purposes of my life
10:37
to take us from states of ignorance
to states of understanding
10:40
with bold exploration
that you can't do every day."
10:44
This shows exactly
the power of a liminal person.
10:48
She had the technical ability to spearhead
10:52
some of the most ambitious
space missions of our time,
10:55
and she perfectly understood her place
10:58
of being exactly who she was
in any place she was.
11:01
Jessica Matthews, inventor
of the SOCCKET line of sports products,
11:06
like soccer balls, that generate
renewable energy as you play with them,
11:09
said it this way:
11:13
"A major part of invention
isn't just creating things,
11:15
it's understanding people
11:19
and understanding the systems
that make this world."
11:21
The reason I tell my story
11:25
and the story of Dr. Alexander
and Jessica Matthews
11:27
is because they are fundamentally
intersectional stories,
11:30
the stories of lives lived at the nexus
of race, gender and innovation.
11:34
Despite implicit and explicit questions
of my right to be in an elite space,
11:40
I'm proud to report that when I graduated,
11:46
I was the first black woman
to earn a PhD in astrophysics
11:49
in Yale's then 312-year history.
11:52
(Applause)
11:55
I am now part of a small but growing cadre
of women of color in STEM
12:01
who are poised to bring new perspectives
and new ideas to life
12:06
on the most pressing issues of our time:
12:11
things like educational inequities,
12:13
police brutality, HIV/AIDS,
climate change, genetic editing,
12:16
artificial intelligence
and Mars exploration.
12:22
This is to say nothing of the things
we haven't even thought of yet.
12:25
Women of color in STEM
occupy some of the toughest
12:29
and most exciting sociotechnological
issues of our time.
12:33
Thus, we are uniquely positioned
12:38
to contribute to
and drive these conversations
12:40
in ways that are more inclusive
of a wider variety of lived experience.
12:43
This outlook can be expanded
to the many intersectional people
12:49
whose experiences, positive and negative,
12:52
enrich the conversations
in ways that outmatch
12:55
even the best-resourced homogenous groups.
12:58
This is not a request
born out of a desire to fit in.
13:02
It's a reminder that we cannot get
to the best possible outcomes
13:06
for the totality of humanity
13:11
without precisely this collaboration,
13:13
this bringing together of the liminal,
13:16
the differently lived,
distinctly experienced
13:18
and disparately impacted.
13:22
Simply put, we cannot be
the most excellent expression
13:24
of our collective genius
13:28
without the full measure
of humanity brought to bear.
13:30
Thank you.
13:34
(Applause)
13:35

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About the Speaker:

Jedidah Isler - Astrophysicist
Jedidah Isler studies blazars — supermassive hyperactive black holes that emit powerful jet streams. They are the universe’s most efficient particle accelerators, transferring energy throughout galaxies.

Why you should listen

Jedidah Isler has been staring at the stars since she was 11 or 12. But because neither her undergraduate college or the university where she got her first master’s degree offered astronomy majors, she threw herself wholeheartedly into physics. It wasn’t until she entered a doctoral program that she was able to dedicate her time to the studying the night sky. In 2014, she became the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D in Astrophysics from Yale.

Isler studies blazars — supermassive hyperactive black holes at the center of galaxies, some of which emit powerful streams of particles. Sometimes these are oriented toward Earth, offering us a unique perspective on the physics of the universe. Isler is a Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow in Physics at Syracuse University. She participates in the Future Faculty Leader program at Harvard's Center for Astrophysics and was named a 2015 TED Fellow.

Isler is also interested in breaking down barriers that prevent many students — especially women of color — from becoming scienists. She works to make STEM accessible to new communities. 

More profile about the speaker
Jedidah Isler | Speaker | TED.com