Research News

Vanderbilt astrophysicist makes ‘The Root’s’ 100 List of Black Influencers

Jedidah Isler delivering a TED talk. (Bret Hartman / TED)
Jedidah Isler delivering a TED talk. (Bret Hartman / TED)

Vanderbilt astrophysicist Jedidah Isler has joined singer-actress Beyoncé, professional basketball player LeBron James and professional tennis player Serena Williams as a member of The Root’s 100 List of Black Influencers.

This is an annual list of the people whom staff members of The Root – a premier news, opinion and culture website for African Americans – believe have done the most to define the black experience in America over the last 12 months.

“At a time when the country continues to devalue black lives at every turn, these are the people who step forward to remind the world that not only do black lives matter, but that it is black people who have helped shape and influence every part of this country,” stated the article announcing the 2016 list.

Isler – a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University and the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale – studies celestial objects that are hard to imagine, much less explore scientifically. Her specialty is blazing quasars, or blazars: supermassive, hyperactive black holes in distant galaxies.

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 – “The ‘Benefits’ of Black Physics Students” – 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.

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 and 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 received her Ph.D. from Yale’s astronomy program. Starting last fall, she returned to Vanderbilt as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in Vanderbilt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Last May, Isler was selected as a member of the National Geographic Society’s 2016 class of Emerging Explorers. This is a group of 13 individuals from around the globe that the society has chosen for their unconventional thinking and innovations that are changing the world for the better. According to National Geographic, “The Emerging Explorers Program recognizes and supports uniquely gifted and inspiring scientists, conservationists and innovators who are at the forefront of discovery, adventure and global problem solving while still early in their careers.”

Isler is featured in the cover story of the spring issue of Vanderbilt Magazine.