Black girl typing.
Photo: Merlas (iStock)

Mareena Robinson Snowden became the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when she crossed the stage at her graduation on June 8.

Provocatively, a career in STEM wasn’t always something Snowden was interested in.

“Engineering definitely was not something I had a passion for at a young age,” she told CNBC. “I 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.”

However, her math and physics teachers in high school changed that for her, and by the time was in the 12th grade, she and her dad decided to visit the physics department at Florida A&M University since she was deciding on colleges at the time.

“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,” said Snowden.

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Back in 2015, just over two percent of bachelor degrees in physics were earned by African Americans, according to the American Physical Society so Snowden understood why the school was invested in scouting her.

Snowden and her father made a deal that she would at least try to major in physics, with the compromise that if in the end, it really wasn’t for her, she’d be able to change.

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That compromise turned out to be unnecessary. During her undergraduate studies, she took part in MIT’s summer research program and was introduced to nuclear engineering. She decided to continue her education through her graduate studies, applying to eight schools. She was only accepted to MIT’s nuclear engineering program. Who would have known at the time that she’d be one to make history?

She told CNBC, “You don’t have to get into every school. You just have to get into the one that you’re supposed to be at.”

While at MIT she was often the only black person or woman in her classes which was quite the change since she attended an HBCU.

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She says her inspiration is Katherine Johnson who was portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Who’s your role model?’ and you know, you pick and choose from different places. And it was like now, I have a tangible woman. I have Katherine Johnson, who was a mathematician and a black woman killing it,” said Snowden.

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Since graduating from MIT, she has taken on a new position at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she will be focusing on nuclear security, as well as policy research and writing about nuclear weapons.