Jedidah Isler knew that she wanted to be an astrophysicist when she was 12 years old — “I really just thought that the sky was beautiful, like a beautiful wall,” she says — and she was determined to figure out how to do it.
As she pursued her dream, there were times when she felt she didn’t belong, when she didn’t look like anyone else in the room, when classmates wouldn’t work with her and she was devastated and ready to quit, she says. But thanks to an extraordinary support system and her own unrelenting talent and perservance, she became the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale and an expert on supermassive, hyperactive black holes.
To a group of more than 100 gathered at the Women’s Leadership Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology on Oct. 29, this keynote speaker – an award-winning physicist and advocate for diversity in STEM education — shared her story but also took it a step further by offering hard-won, practical advice and plenty of inspiration.
“I could create a new definition of what an astrophysicist looks like. I want you to have that same excitement,” she said.
Isler, who is currently a National Science Foundation Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at Vanderbilt University, headlined the second annual conference that offered a day-long program for the Stevens community that touched upon careers but also topics such as self-care, mental health, social identity and leadership. Guest speakers, with opening remarks by Daniella Kranjac ’99, co-founder and managing partner of Dynamyk Capital and a Stevens trustee, an alumnae panel and networking with alumnae from ExxonMobil, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, Estee Lauder, PSE&G and others, filled the agenda, in this expanded event which saw registration more than double from its previous year.
The alumnae panel discussed both their career and life challenges and victories and offered advice from their diverse experiences. Panelists were Sylvana Azana ’14, a project manager with ExxonMobil; Victoria O'Connor Blazeski '11, who works in financial services with Ernst & Young; Lauren Mayer ’12, a senior data analyst with E*Trade; and Jessica Spanier Wismer ’15, CEO and founder of Scrumptious Secrets of Vermont, a natural foods company.
Isler filled the Babbio Center auditorium, where mostly female students – undergraduate and graduate women – as well as alumnae, faculty and staff gathered to hear this TED Fellow speak of her journey and how she got there. Isler has received fellowships from NASA and the National Science Foundation and her research focuses on using simultaneous infrared, optical and gamma-ray observations to better understand the physics of blazer jets — particle jets emanating from black holes at the centers of these distant galaxies.
While her research may stretch beyond this galaxy, her advice and way with students couldn’t be more down to earth and approachable. She defines her philosophy as one passed down by the civil rights leader Ella Baker, who spoke of making your own path, and then using what you’ve learned so others can walk that path more easily.
“Ella gets me,” Isler said. “I read this and I said: “This is my philosophy. She asked me to learn something and pass it on.”
Isler attended Norfolk State University, a historically black college where, surrounded by a supportive community, she thrived, majoring in physics and attending scientific conferences across the country. She later entered Yale, intent on pursuing her master’s and Ph.D. in astrophysics.
“It was a dream come true,” she says. While she received a phenomenal education, there were barriers and struggles.
“Not everyone was happy to see you—that was rough,” she says, as she began to feel that she didn’t belong and even considered quitting. Her mother, her great mentor, urged her on. She finally decided that she needed to be herself, and to stand up for herself and her earned right to be at this great university.
“If I wanted my voice represented, I’ve got to start speaking up,” she told herself.
“Getting to a place where I’m not sorry – that’s a place of power, Getting to a place where you’re comfortable – that’s where the magic happens.”
Isler offered five pieces of advice, and many students wrote them down, word for word. Isler made them repeat each one aloud:
- Dream Obnoxiously. “Start with the biggest, baddest, most bodacious dream and don’t apologize.”
- Invest Selfishly. Don’t be afraid to invest time on your personal and professional growth, and make sure that you surround yourself with others who elevate you, who “even when you’re not in the room, will say you’re awesome,” Isler said.
- Persevere Relentlessly. “It’s not going to go according to plan,” Isler said. “You will have rainy days. It will be hard, you’ll feel like quitting. Keep going.”
- Succeed Unapologetically. “Do not apologize for your success,” she said. “Role models are like human affirmations. Tell people how you did it.”
- Generate Opportunity. “You didn’t get there by yourself. There’s a whole flock of people who helped you get going. It’s your responsibility to help others on this path.”
Students had many questions for Isler—from her passion for physics to handling people who try to tear them down. For the latter, Isler advised pumping up their affirmations, surrounding themselves with friends and supporters and cutting off those who aren’t supportive.
The afternoon alumnae panel offered more words of experience, inspiration and practical advice. Victoria Blazeski told students to know their strengths and to “grasp these strengths with two hands.” But, at the same time, don’t be afraid to risk and fail.
“As the cliché goes, if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough,” she said. Push yourself to just where you’re a little uncomfortable, she said.
All panelists assured the students that Stevens is preparing them well for the real world, as they are learning to work in groups, hone their presentation skills and build on their problem-solving talents – all vital skills for so many jobs. But the panelists also emphasized finding a healthy outlet for stress, whether it’s exercise, meditation, friendships or a walk in the park.
Students praised all of the speakers for offering a healthy mix of inspiration and practical advice.
Student Monica Razak found Ilser’s talk particularly relevant. “The fact that she gave actual advice, the fact that she said that you have nothing to prove because you got here because of who you are … The biggest takeaway is that so many people showed up. I like knowing that I’m surrounded by go-getters at this school,” she said.
Freshman Ivette Marte was moved by Isler’s advice to build and cherish your own support group, and letting the naysayers out of your life. “You’re more than what people see,” she said. “Where I grew up, I grew up with some negative people and I let those people go. I can achieve other things.”
Graduate student Disha Gurnani agreed.
“It doesn’t matter where you came from. It does matter where you want to go,” she said.
Stevens’ Office of Women Programs and the Office of Graduate Student Affairs sponsored the event.