When Mareena Robinson-Snowden, PhD ’17, graduated from MIT, she became the first African American woman to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering from the Institute. It wasn’t an accomplishment she’d always dreamed of.
Growing up, Robinson-Snowden had little interest in STEM—she struggled with math and science and wrote them off. “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.”
But Robinson-Snowden’s high school teachers challenged that idea, teaching her that learning wasn’t about innate ability, but about growing and building. Inspired, she decided to reengage in the subjects. “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, as a business major at Florida A&M University, Robinson-Snowden visited the physics department at the urging of her father. After meeting with professors excited about her interest, she changed majors. She excelled in the field, but when a classmate encouraged her to apply for the MIT Summer Research Program, she doubted her abilities.
“I thought of MIT as this untouchable thing full of 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 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,” she says. “A lot of work goes into competing at that level.”
Robinson-Snowden returned to MIT as a PhD student and found a support system that helped her succeed. Her thesis advisor, senior research scientist Richard Lanza, helped her find more opportunities to develop her research in nuclear security. Outside the classroom, she was also 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 says that the academic challenges she faced at MIT prepared her 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.