Ciara Sivels is the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan.
Sivels was 27 when she completed and defended successfully her thesis on the “Development of an Advanced Radioxenon Detector for Nuclear Explosion Monitoring” in October 2018.
The history-making feat wasn’t lost on Sivels, who’s a native of Chesapeake, Virginia.
“It was something that was in the back of my mind as I was going through the program,” Sivels told HuffPost. “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.”
Sivels didn’t grow up with the dream of becoming a nuclear engineer, rather she wanted to be a “pastry chef.”
“Never in a million years would I have predicted that I’d be working as a nuclear engineer in a major research laboratory,” MIT News quoted her as saying. “My original dream was to be a pastry chef.”
HuffPost further quoted her as saying: “I was originally going to go to culinary school. In my junior and senior years, I was in culinary arts.”
Sivels changed course after taking AP chemistry class during her junior year of high school and encouragement from her teacher to pursue a career in STEM.
In 2010, about 20,570 individuals obtained their doctoral degrees in STEM. Less than 3 percent of the number were African American women, according to The Scientista Foundation.
After junior high, Sivels went on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 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 kinda how I switched over into engineering and eventually ended up at MIT and ended up in the nuclear program.”
Sivels enrolled in the University of Michigan’s doctoral program after earning her degree at MIT.
The course was rigorous that at some point Sivels thought about quitting the program. But thanks to the help she had from her colleagues as well as her professors she stayed on.
“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,” she told HuffPost.
Sivels is now a staff at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). She’s engaged in projects related to national security.
Dr. Sara Pozzi collaborated with Sivels and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to develop a unique detection system for radioxenon, a gas linked to explosions from nuclear weapons testing.
“This project was initiated by Ciara and represents a significant advance in nuclear explosion monitoring,” Pozzi said. “The UM College of Engineering is becoming a more diverse and inclusive environment and Ciara’s story is a wonderful example of what we can achieve.”
“I helped develop a novel device to improve monitoring stations all over the world, where detectors run 24/7,” Sivels added. “We fabricated something that could plug and play in existing technology at these stations.”
Sivels was recently named one of the nation’s 125 American Association for the Advancement of Science If/Then ambassadors, an initiative aimed at middle-school girls to further women in STEM fields.