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PhD Student

First Black Woman to Earn a University of Michigan Nuclear Engineering PhD

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Ciara Sivels made history by becoming the first black woman to earn a doctoral degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan, the top program in the United States.

Sivels knew her accomplishment would end up making history, but chose to channel her focus on defending her thesis “Development of Advanced Radioxenon Detector for Nuclear Explosion Monitoring.”

“It was something that was in the back of my mind as I was going through the program,” Sivels said. “So yeah, it was something that I thought about, but I tried not to make it the focus because I didn’t want to add more stress to the rigor of the program.”

While it may now sound surprising, Sivels did not always dream of a career in nuclear engineering. Her original dream in high school had been to attend culinary school. However, during her junior year of high school, her AP chemistry teacher pushed her to pursue a career in STEM. This encouragement is what led to her attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she majored in nuclear science and engineering.

“I remember the teacher from that class saying, ‘Oh, you’re really smart, you should think about doing something other than culinary,’” Sivels recalled. “So that’s kind of how I switched over into engineering and eventually ended up at MIT and ended up in the nuclear program.”

Like many pursuing a degree in engineering, Sivels recalls it being a difficult journey. “Lots of people helped me, because there were times where I was thinking about leaving the program,” she said. “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.”

Despite this accomplishment, Sivels recognizes that there is still a lack of diverse representation in the STEM field to help women succeed. “My two big things are representation and exposure,” she said. “I feel like my path could have been a lot easier if I would’ve been exposed to things at a different time. I still feel like exposure is key and representation also helps, because you have people that look like you that can help pull you up when you’re failing.”

On top of this amazing accomplishment, Sivels is also the founder of Women in Nuclear Engineering in Radiological Sciences, a campus organization that helps connect women in the field. “I think that’s a really good grounding because it’s not going to be easy, especially as a black woman,” she said. “It’s just not going to be easy. If I made it, anybody can do it.”

She recognizes how difficult it is for women and women of color who are entering the STEM fields and wants them to be empowered. Her latest accomplishment and her work in empowering other women are what not only makes her a great woman, but a great leader for females in engineering.

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