Mareena Robinson Snowden is a trailblazer in the field of nuclear engineering. She is the first black woman to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Her journey to this achievement was not easy, but she overcame many challenges and obstacles with determination, passion and support.
Mareena was born in Jamaica and moved to Miami, Florida, when she was four years old. She did not have a strong interest in math and science as a child, but she was encouraged by her high school teachers to pursue physics, a subject that intimidated many students. She visited Florida A&M University, a historically black college, and was impressed by their physics department. She decided to major in physics there, and graduated with honors in 2011.
During her undergraduate years, she participated in MIT’s summer research program, where she was introduced to nuclear engineering. She was fascinated by the potential of nuclear energy to provide clean and sustainable power for the world. She applied to eight graduate schools and was accepted by MIT’s nuclear engineering program.
She faced many challenges as a black woman in a predominantly white and male field. She often felt isolated and doubted her abilities. She also had to balance her studies with her personal life, as she got married and had a daughter during her PhD. She credits her family, friends, mentors and faith for helping her overcome these difficulties.
She completed her PhD in 2018, after 11 years of post-secondary study. Her dissertation focused on warhead verification, a key issue for nuclear arms control and disarmament. She developed a novel technique to confirm the authenticity of nuclear warheads without revealing sensitive information about their design.
She is currently a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she works on developing new ideas and frameworks for nuclear policy and diplomacy. She is also an advocate for increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM fields, especially for women of color.
Mareena Robinson Snowden is an inspiration for many young people who aspire to pursue careers in STEM. She has shown that with hard work, perseverance and passion, anything is possible. She has also contributed to advancing the scientific knowledge and understanding of nuclear engineering, as well as promoting peace and security in the world.
Some of her other achievements include:
- Being named one of the 35 Innovators Under 35 by MIT Technology Review in 2019
- Receiving the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration Laboratory Residency Graduate Fellowship in 2016
- Winning the MIT Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award in 2015
- Being featured in Essence magazine’s list of “Woke 100 Women” in 2018
She says: “I hope that my story can serve as an inspiration for young people who are interested in science or engineering or policy or anything that they want to do. I hope that they see that there’s no limit to what they can achieve.”
In her own words, Mareena Robinson Snowden shares some of her views and values that guided her along her journey:
On being visible and vocal: “I think it’s important for us as women — especially as women of color — to be visible and vocal about our experiences so that we can encourage other women who are coming behind us.”
On dealing with failure: “I think one of the things that I learned along this journey is that you have to be OK with failure.”
On having a vision: “I think it’s important to have a vision for yourself and your life because it helps you navigate through difficult times.”
On having mentors: “I think it’s important to have mentors who can guide you and support you and challenge you.”
On having passion: “I think it’s important to have a passion for what you do because it gives you a sense of purpose and fulfillment.”
In other news of Sheroes of STEM is Kalissa Villafana, a young woman from Trinidad, who made history as the first black woman to attain a Doctorate degree in Nuclear Physics from Florida State University in the United States.
Kalissa’s journey towards this remarkable achievement began with her undergraduate studies at the Florida University of Agriculture and Mechanical, where she laid the foundation for her passion in physics. Inspired by her experiences at an all-girls Catholic High School, where she was exposed to numerous physics experiments, Kalissa knew from the age of 12 that she aspired to be a physicist.
The high school’s teachers played a pivotal role in fueling her curiosity about the principles of matter, energy, and the workings of the universe. Their guidance solidified her determination to pursue a career in physics, a dream she held steadfastly throughout her academic journey. Read more about Kalissa’s story here.