27-year-old Ciara Sivels is the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D in nuclear engineering from the top program in the country from the University of Michigan after successfully finishing her thesis this October.
Sivels, who is a native of Chesapeake, Virginia, admits to Huffington Post Black Voices that while she’s proud of the accomplishment she’s made, a career in STEM has not always been her goal.
In fact, she claims that her initial professional aspiration was to become a chef when she was a senior in high school. But her teacher urged her to seek a career in STEM after she took AP chemistry in her junior year.
Oh, you’re really smart, you should think about pursuing anything other than cooking, the teacher from the class said, in my memory. Says Sivels.
“So that’s kinda how I switched over into engineering and eventually ended up at MIT and ended up in the nuclear program.”
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After earning her degree in nuclear science and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sivels then enrolled in the University of Michigan’s doctoral program.
But with a rigorous course load and no representation of anyone who looked like her, Sivels says there were certainly times when she wanted to quit.
“Lots of people helped me because there were times where I was thinking about leaving the program,” she says.
“There was a point where I was like, OK, I was going to go to a different school because it’s just not working out.”
Thankfully, with the help of mentors and professors, Sivels stuck with the program.
Now, as the first Black woman to be in her position, she recognizes what her representation means and says there is a lot more work that needs to be done to diversify the STEM industry.
“Representation and exposure are my two main goals,” adds Sivels. “I believe that if I had been introduced to things at a different period, my path may have been much simpler.
In my opinion, representation is also important because it gives you individuals who look like you to lean on when things are tough.
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Sivels intends to work in the applied physics lab at John Hopkins University after receiving her doctorate before pursuing a career as a professor.