After successfully completing her thesis this October, 27-year-old Ciara Sivels has become the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the nation’s top program at the University of Michigan.
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 says, when she was in high school she initially thought about a culinary career. But, after taking AP chemistry her junior year, her teacher encouraged her to pursue a profession in STEM.
“I remember the teacher from that class saying, ‘Oh, you’re really smart, you should think about doing something other than culinary,'” Sivels says. “So that’s kinda how I switched over into engineering and eventually ended up at MIT and ended up in the nuclear program.”
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.
“My two big things are representation and exposure,” says Sivels. “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.”
With her doctorate degree in hand, Sivels plans to work at John Hopkins University’s applied physics lab, before eventually pursuing a career as a professor.