Dr. Beth Brown was the first Black woman astrophysicist I had ever heard about around high school (there were others before her, but I found out about her first). Dr. Brown was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D from the University of Michigan’s Department of Astronomy. She was working at NASA Goddard at the time when I became aware of her and it was right about the time I started getting “serious” about astrophysics as a career.

To have her there as a role model and living example gave me the confidence that I really could do this and that I wasn’t strange; that there were other Black women who aspired to this work and had actually accomplished it. Dr. Brown has since passed away, but there is now an ever-increasing cadre of us women of color, and black women in particular, in the astronomy and physics fields. It feels good to be part of that cohort and to know that the conversation (and motivation) continues.

At the time, I didn’t really understand her scientific work, although her extensive public outreach activities certainly went a long way to make it more accessible. Yet she was the consummate role model: a highly respected and well-educated astrophysicist, an HBCU alumna (Howard University), a deep commitment to public engagement and she had an active relationship with the National Society of Black Physicists. She was everything I wanted to be in a body that looked like mine.

I hadn’t yet found another person that had their feet so firmly in so many of the worlds that were of utmost interest to me even as a young person. It was as if, without even knowing me, she gave me permission to be the fullest version of myself. The one that loves astrophysics AND people AND fashion AND engagement AND all kinds of other things. That permission infused me with the confidence to continue pursuing what at the time seemed to be an unlikely dream, and I’m certainly glad I did!

One way I’m trying to continue that tradition is through a monthly Google Hangout for emerging and established women of color in STEM, called Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM, or #VanguardSTEM for short. We talk about all kinds of things that would be helpful for young people, women of color in particular, to find their way towards their science dreams.

— As told to Demetria Irwin

(Dr Jedidah Isler Photo by Ryan Lash)

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