MEET FIRST BLACK WOMAN TO EARN A NUCLEAR ENGINEERING Ph.D. FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN
Throughout much of her life, Ciara Sivels had dreams of becoming a chef. Now she is the first Black woman to get a doctoral degree in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Michigan.
“I really had no idea (about engineering) until my junior year of high school,” Sivels said. “I had a teacher suggest I look into engineering because I had always been at good at chemistry and math, and I constantly excelled in all my classes.”
Sivels attended Hickory High School in Chesapeake, Va. As a student, she was busy working to balance multiple Advanced Placement credits and after-school programs, such as her school’s Scholastic Bowl. She was also highly active within her church community.
As senior year progressed, she started applying to different engineering schools. Though the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was her “reach school,” she was accepted. When she arrived at MIT, Sivels had a heavy background in chemistry. But one of her mentors suggested she look into the nuclear field as she became interested in energy, antimatter and the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.
“(MIT) was a change because I wasn’t prepared to go into engineering, so I didn’t take all of the classes that I need to take, such as physics,” Sivels said. “So, it was a struggle, as MIT is known for having rigorous academics.”
Yasmine Doleyres, Sivels’s roommate at both MIT and later at the University of Michigan, spoke on her work ethic and triumphs at the challenging universities.
“Ciara is a very balanced person,” Doleyres said. “She is passionate about her work and loves getting into conversations about why it is very relevant, especially in the present day with different nuclear incidents. She is determined to continue her work and to do it well.”
In between her undergraduate degree and PhD, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sivels became a chemistry teaching assistant and worked briefly with Teachers for America on an internship. Because of this work, she began to feel a pull toward academia.
Yet, an academic advisor suggested Sivels look into a master’s program before deciding to professionally teach. So, she looked to the University of Michigan for the next chapter of her education.
“Because I struggled at MIT, my GPA was lower than what was required because I hadn’t taken physics and other basic courses in high school — so I really had to catch up with my peers,” Sivels said. “In order to help me adjust, U of M actually let me come in with a conditional admittance to see how I compare in the program and then finally matriculate into my Ph.D..”
Within her first year at the University of Michigan, she noticed she was the only Black student pursuing a doctorate in her field. The following year, one more Black woman entered the program. In 2018, there are a total of three Black women pursuing doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering.
According to The Scientista Foundation, in 2010 about 20,570 individuals obtained their doctoral degrees in STEM. Less than 3 percent of those 20,570 were African American women.
“I think the biggest (problem) is exposure,” said Sivels. “Sometimes, in our community we are just not exposed to the opportunities that maybe some other groups are. For me, that was the biggest qualm with my past, because I came into STEM just by chance. It could’ve been a lot easier if I was prepared to go into engineering prior.”
Because of this experience, Sivels, with alum Crystal Green, one of the other Black women in the nuclear engineering doctoral program, worked to increase outreach at the high school level through the Detroit Pre-College Engineering Program.
In a few weeks, Sivels plans to move to Baltimore to work at Johns Hopkins University’s applied physics lab. But ultimately, she wants to pursue a career in academia. “That was my goal, going into this program. I want to be a professor,” she said.
Sivels is also the founder of Women in Nuclear Engineering in Radiological Sciences, a campus organization in her department that helps connect women in the field. She wants black women entering STEM disciplines to know how important it is to “fight for what you want.”