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Mareena Snowden – the First Black Woman to earn a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from MIT

by Milicent Atieno
Mareena Snowden - the First Black Woman to earn a Ph.D in Nuclear Engineering from MIT

They say, Education is the greatest equalizer in the world; although some would claim so is democracy, but I would take that with a pinch of salt know how shady politicians can get. In today’s Women in Tech feature, we would like to introduce you to Mareena Snowden; the first Black Woman to earn a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from MIT.

In her early 30s, Mareena Robinson Snowden on June 8, 2018, became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). No mean feat given how rife the field is with predominantly white male students.

On a post on Instagram, Mareena wrote “Grateful for every part of this experience. 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.”

She didn’t have a thing for Science and Math as a child

You would think it takes someone who loves numbers and the facts of science to go through the classes and pass the exams necessary to earn a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering. Well, apparently not!

During an interview with the CNBC, Snowden 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.”

Nonetheless, Snowden soldiered through the fears and anxiety that came with sitting in a math and science class, doing the exams, and waiting for the results. All thanks to patient teachers who steered her past fear of math and science; something that always knocks out most students from the path to these careers.

Snowden was introduced to FAMU when they came visiting when she was a senior in high school. She said they treated her “like a football player getting recruited.” When FAMU learned she was interested in majoring in Physics, they immediately directed her to the scholarship office.

That is how Snowden started attending FAMU, and during her undergrad years, she was actively participating in MIT’s summer research programs. That is where she got introduced to nuclear engineering.

During her pursuit of higher learning, she decided to apply for a course in Nuclear Engineering and out of the nine top universities she applied for, she only received an acceptance letter from MIT.

You know, you take a risk, you put yourself out there and sometimes you get a hit – and you only need one hit. You don’t have to get into every school. You just have to get into the one that you’re supposed to be at.”

In 2011, she enrolled at MIT. Her adviser at the Univesity says Snowden quickly made a mark. Though things were not as easy for her compared to other students in her class; majorly because she was often the only Black face in the lecture hall.

Snowden kept with her pictures of Black women that have who had made a mark in the world of STEM.

I had a picture of Katherine Johnson on my wall right after ‘Hidden Figures’ came out, because she was a model for me.

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.”

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