Mareena Robinson Snowden made history as the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Snowden never dreamed of a career in STEM as a child.
“Engineering definitely was not something I had a passion for at a young age,” she said in an interview with CNBC Make It. Snowden was quite the opposite. “I think my earliest memories of math and science were definitely one of like nervousness and anxiety and just kind of an overall fear of the subject.”
Snowden would eventually shake off the fear thanks to her high school math and physics teachers who took interest in her and helped widen her scope and interest beyond English and history – subjects she loves.
“I had this idea that I wasn’t good at math and they kind of helped to peel away that mindset,” she stated, adding: “They showed me that it’s more of a growth situation, that you can develop an aptitude for this and you can develop a skill. It’s just like a muscle, and you have to work for it.”
In 2015, just over 2% of bachelor degrees in physics were earned by African-Americans, according to the American Physical Society. African Americans make up almost 15% of the United States’ population. Despite this, in 2013, around 5% of Ph.D. recipients in the US were African Americans, and fewer than 1% of PhDs were awarded to African American women.
When Snowden, who grew up in Miami, was in the 12th grade and studying physics, she and her dad were introduced to someone who worked in the physics department at Florida A&M University, CNBC reported. At the time, she said, she was considering colleges and decided to visit the campus.
“We drove up there and it was amazing,” stated Snowden. “They treated me like a football player who was getting recruited. They took me to the scholarship office, and they didn’t know anything about me at the time. All they knew was that I was a student who was open to the possibility of majoring in physics.”
Snowden’s journey to becoming the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. at MIT was the culmination of 11 years of post-secondary study.
Snowden was reportedly introduced to nuclear engineering during her undergraduate years when she participated in MIT’s summer research program. After her undergraduate years, she applied to pursue graduate study in eight schools and was accepted by MIT’s nuclear engineering program.
Snowden on June 8, 2018, became the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the decorated university.
“Grateful for every part of this experience — highs, and lows,” she wrote on Instagram. “Every person who supported me and those who didn’t. Grateful for a praying family, a husband who took on this challenge as his own, sisters who reminded me at every stage how powerful I am, friends who inspired me to fight harder. Grateful for the professors who fought for and against me. Every experience on this journey was necessary, and I’m better for it.”
Also speaking to Blavity about her achievement, Snowden said she “only figured it out because I was looking for a mentor to connect with, somebody to figure out what my next steps would look like.”
She added: “Speaking to the administration in my department, they let me know, ‘our records don’t show anybody, so it looks like you’re going to be the first.’”
After finishing her program at M.I.T., Snowden completed a fellowship with the National Nuclear Security Administration. And she’s at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she focuses on nuclear security, including policy research and writing about nuclear weapons.
“It’s exciting as a researcher to work on something that people are thinking about now, something with real-world implications,” stated Snowden. “I try to understand how policymakers and negotiators think, explore current nuclear challenges, and then try to evolve technical frameworks to meet the world as it is.”