When Mareena Robinson-Snowden PhD ’17 graduated from MIT, she became the first self-identified American black woman to graduate with a PhD in nuclear engineering from the Institute.* If you ask her if the accomplishment was something she’d always dreamed about, the answer would be no.
Growing up, Robinson-Snowden had little interest in STEM—she often struggled in math and science and preferred to focus on courses that came easier to her. “We tend to talk about math and science as binary—you either have skills in it, or you don’t,” she says. “I bought into that narrative.”
Robinson-Snowden’s high school math and physics teachers challenged that story; they taught her that learning was about growth and building, not innate ability. Robinson-Snowden took the lesson to heart and refocused on her STEM studies. “For me it was about gaining confidence in my understanding, even if the way I got there looked different than it did for others,” she says.
Later enrolling at Florida A&M University as a business major, Robinson-Snowden was urged by her father to check out the physics department. After meeting with professors excited about her interest, Robinson-Snowden decided to pursue the major. She excelled in the field—often attending office hours and tutoring to support her studies—but when she was encouraged by a classmate to apply for the MIT Summer Research Program, she once again doubted her STEM abilities.
“I thought of MIT as this untouchable thing full of all these geniuses who don’t have to work for it,” she says. Taking a chance, Robinson-Snowden applied for the program and was accepted. As a research intern at the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, she was first introduced to nuclear engineering and learned more about the “geniuses at MIT.” “I was exposed to the reality of what it meant to be an MIT student. I learned that a lot of work goes into competing at that level,” she says.
She later returned to MIT as a PhD student, where she faced new challenges as she transitioned from a background in physics to the nuclear engineering program. “The process of learning not only a new vocabulary, but also way of approaching problems was initially a struggle,” she says. But a strong support system helped her succeed. Her thesis advisor, senior research scientist Richard Lanza, was instrumental in helping her find more opportunities to develop her research in nuclear security. “He invested so much time into my journey and my learning,” she says. “I was invited to conferences in Japan and to Italy [to present research], and it was because he had put my name in the room.”
Outside of the classroom, Robinson-Snowden built community across campus. She became an active member of the Black Graduate Student Association of MIT and the Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers (ACME). “I had a lot of different groups that served as family,” she says.
Now a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Robinson-Snowden is continuing her research focus—with world-changing implications. “In academia, the scale is endless, but our goal [at the Nuclear Policy Program] is to influence government policy, so our focus is more near term,” she says. Robinson-Snowden says that the academic challenges she faced at MIT prepared for the fellowship—and life after the Institute.
“MIT really tested how strong I am. To be able to demonstrate that strength to yourself—that’s the biggest gift,” she says.
*Self-identified ethnicity and racial identity were first recorded as part of MIT student records in 1980.