You could say the stars finally aligned for Jessica Edis when the 22-year-old former Penticton resident began studying astrophysics this month at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
Just three years ago, Edis was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that interfered with her ability to complete high school, but blessed her with a keen mind that made her one of the top physics students Okanagan College has ever seen.
Asperger’s syndrome is mild form of autism, said her mom, Charleen, and people with the condition usually struggle with heightened sensory awareness.
“They get over-stimulated very easily because they feel so much more than the average person does,” Charleen said.
They can also become “hyper-focused,” she continued, “so if they can focus it on something that’s useful and that’s positive, then they can achieve incredible things…. If they get offended or hurt, they’ll also hyper-focus on that, then it’s difficult to get them to turn away from that and move on.”
That aspect of the condition, combined with related social unease like difficulty making eye contact and speaking up, led to disciplinary issues at school for Jessica, who stopped attending after Grade 12 despite not meeting graduation requirements.
Her younger sister, Katie, was also diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome about three years ago, which was around the time Jessica got serious about becoming an astrophysicist and began upgrading at the college in Penticton.
“I’ve always liked astronomy, but I didn’t realize I could get money in a job like that,” said Jessica, who is fascinated by the cosmos.
“All the stuff up there, you can see it, but it’s so far away and so huge,” she said. “And the fact that we’re stuck on this little, tiny planet by comparison, but we’ve been able to figure out so much about everything around us without being able to go very far, I think that’s pretty cool too.”
Enter Ryan Ransom, who just happens to be an astrophysicist who teaches at the Penticton campus of Okanagan College.
“The first time she came to my office, she knocked on the door and said: ‘I want to be an astrophysicist,” he recalled.
That was late 2009 or early 2010, Ransom said, and after the brusque introduction, the two got busy getting Jessica’s university prerequisites in order. While she struggled with group work, she quickly mastered individualized tasks in math and physics.
“She basically finished at the top of her class every time she’s taken a physics class, including a self-directed, no-instructor-available (course),” said Ransom. “She got everything virtually perfect.”
Jessica’s brain just seems wired to understand physics and the mathematics behind it.
“You see equations on the board,” Ransom said, but “she’s seeing the spatial representation of what those equations mean.”
“She sees physics equations the way the people who wrote them down intended them to be seen. They weren’t equations first, they were a representation of some sort of relationship in nature,” he continued.
“There’s almost no way to teach that. It can be acquired over time with experience, but she’s getting it and she has that right off the bat.”
Ransom is reluctant to take too much credit for helping Jessica get to Saint Mary’s, but said it’s fortunate that the Penticton campus of Okanagan College just had someone with his expertise on staff to help guide her.
“That might have helped to align the stars,” he said, “but they all move in slightly different directions and she’s managed to keep them straight.”
Her parents helped, too.
Charleen and her husband, Trevor, have moved the family and home-based business from Penticton to Dartmouth, a city just across the harbour from Halifax and a 25-minute drive to Saint Mary’s.
“Sometimes you have to put your own interests and things aside so you can help your kids achieve their dreams,” Trevor said of the move, adding it will also put a range of good arts schools within reach of 14-year-old Katie, who has demonstrated a gift for digital animation.
Jessica, however, is trying out dormitory life: “I have to move out at some point, so it’s kind of a safe jump outside of the home.”
Her phobia about riding buses — prompted by the Greyhound beheading in 2008 — will make city life tough, but she expects to manage.
Ransom said she has the right tools to excel at academic life and already has plenty to be proud of, like “going from a situation in high school that didn’t work and turning it around in a matter of two years.”
Jessica doesn’t see herself as an inspiration seeking to overcome Asperger’s syndrome.
“I just kind of do my own thing,” she said, “and if people are inspired by it, cool.”