30-year-old Mareena Robinson Snowden walked across the commencement stage at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on June 8 and became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the 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.”
Snowden told CNBC that as a child she never dreamed of a career in STEAM. She said, “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.”
She said that her high school math and science teachers helped her get over that fear.
When she was a senior in high school she and her dad were introduced to FAMU, when they visited she said she was treated “like a football player getting recruited.” When they found out that she was interested in majoring in physics, they took her straight to the scholarship office, reports CNBC.
She decided to attend FAMU and during her undergrad she participated in MIT’s summer research program where she was introduced to nuclear engineering. She decided to continue her education and applied to eight schools but was only accepted by one, MIT’s nuclear engineering program.
“You know, you take a risk, you put yourself out there and sometimes you get a hit — and you only need one hit,” 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.”
She enrolled at MIT in 2011, and, according to her adviser, quickly made her mark, reports CNBC.
According to CNBC it took Snowden some time to adjust to MIT, partly because she was often the only Black face in a room which is a major change coming from an HBCU.
To keep herself motivated she surrounded herself with photos of Black women who were successful in STEM before her.
“I had a picture of Katherine Johnson on my wall right after ‘Hidden Figures’ came out, because she was a model for me,” she told CNBC . “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.”
Now she’s working at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she says she will be focused on nuclear security, including policy research and writing about nuclear weapons, reports CNBC.
She hopes her accomplishments will inspire other young people to confidently pursue careers in fields where they might be a minority.
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