Meet 31-year-old Mareena Snowden, first black woman to earn Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT

Meet 31-year-old Mareena Snowden, first black woman to earn Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT

Mareena Robinson Snowden made history as the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).Snowden never dreamed of a career in STEM as a child.

“Engineering definitely was not something I had a passion for at a young age,” she said in an interview with CNBC Make It. Snowden was quite the opposite. “I think my earliest memories of math and science were definitely one of like nervousness and anxiety and just kind of an overall fear of the subject.”

Snowden would eventually shake off the fear thanks to her high school math and physics teachers who took interest in her and helped widen her scope and interest beyond English and history – subjects she loves.

“I had this idea that I wasn’t good at math and they kind of helped to peel away that mindset,” she stated, adding: “They showed me that it’s more of a growth situation, that you can develop an aptitude for this and you can develop a skill. It’s just like a muscle, and you have to work for it.”

In 2015, just over 2% of bachelor degrees in physics were earned by African-Americans, according to the American Physical Society. African Americans make up almost 15% of the United States’ population. Despite this, in 2013, around 5% of Ph.D. recipients in the US were African Americans, and fewer than 1% of PhDs were awarded to African American women. 

When Snowden, who grew up in Miami, was in the 12th grade and studying physics, she and her dad were introduced to someone who worked in the physics department at Florida A&M University, CNBC reported. At the time, she said, she was considering colleges and decided to visit the campus.

Image result for Mareena Robinson Snowden
Credit: Mareena Robinson Snowden

“We drove up there and it was amazing,” stated Snowden. “They treated me like a football player who was getting recruited. They took me to the scholarship office, and they didn’t know anything about me at the time. All they knew was that I was a student who was open to the possibility of majoring in physics.”

Snowden’s journey to becoming the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. at MIT was the culmination of 11 years of post-secondary study.

Snowden was reportedly introduced to nuclear engineering during her undergraduate years when she participated in MIT’s summer research program. After her undergraduate years, she applied to pursue graduate study in eight schools and was accepted by MIT’s nuclear engineering program.

Snowden on June 8, 2018, became the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the decorated university.

“Grateful for every part of this experience — highs, and lows,” she wrote on Instagram. “Every person who supported me and those who didn’t. Grateful for a praying family, a husband who took on this challenge as his own, sisters who reminded me at every stage how powerful I am, friends who inspired me to fight harder. Grateful for the professors who fought for and against me. Every experience on this journey was necessary, and I’m better for it.”

Also speaking to Blavity about her achievement, Snowden said she “only figured it out because I was looking for a mentor to connect with, somebody to figure out what my next steps would look like.”

She added: “Speaking to the administration in my department, they let me know, ‘our records don’t show anybody, so it looks like you’re going to be the first.’”

After finishing her program at M.I.T., Snowden completed a fellowship with the National Nuclear Security Administration. And she’s at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she focuses on nuclear security, including policy research and writing about nuclear weapons.

“It’s exciting as a researcher to work on something that people are thinking about now, something with real-world implications,” stated Snowden. “I try to understand how policymakers and negotiators think, explore current nuclear challenges, and then try to evolve technical frameworks to meet the world as it is.”

Meet Janice de Graça, Cape Verde’s rising youth advocate

Janice de Graça describes herself as a “People Alchemist”, in there lies the idea of helping with transformation and growth and the expression of her commitment to empower and inspire others to feel, to think and to act in finding their true selves as well as build up the best version of themselves.


The poet and blogger, who graduated with high distinction in Social Policy from the University of Lisbon and with a post graduate degree in Art Education from the Open University of Lisbon believes that competing with oneself and collaborating with others creates the environment to easily foster change especially in the area of — and saving the planet.

At 33, Janice has engaged in volunteering, empowering and advocacy works for the past 18 years and believes in sharing her experiences through capacity building for global evolution.

Touching on her professional life, she narrated the challenges she faced defining herself as a professional in any field. She said: “The world tells us about having a specific profession and be part of a specific box. I never fit in. I like different areas of knowledge. I studied Science, Social Sciences, Art and literature and economics. I engaged in different approaches on my social intervention: social policy, community intervention, arts, writing, mentoring, coaching, facilitating, advocating, motivating, and organizing events and so on. I embrace my multiplicity.”

With the mindset of making a positive impact on our world, working with a multidisciplinary, integrative and cross-cultural approach, Janice has developed keen interest in Youth Activism with the conscious effort of actively participating in measures that “protect the planet”.

She narrates that “As a kid, I was very conscious about the need to protect our planet. I would never throw away trash and if I saw someone doing it, even if it was an adult, I would try to prevent it; as a teenager, I was always trying to mediate conflicts ad naturally engaging on activities with a bigger purpose and trying to defend and empower oppressed people.”

“I do believe in my responsibility to share all the blessings I´ve been given by God with the world, and all the skills I developed through hard work and contemplation to help to build a better world for all of us. I was blessed with an amazing education, a loving family; a capacity to put words out in a way that compels people to feel, think and take action and I am responsible for using those gifts for global evolution. I believe in my capacity to learn and to learn how to do better when what I know is not enough”

She also identified that one of the major issues facing young people today, across the world, is the difficulty of having their own voice and being able to put their thoughts out there. “Even some outstanding young people out there, some with relevant positions and a relevant set of achievements, are not speaking with their voice but with someone else´s words and beliefs. This wicked problem calls for a combined set of solutions”, she said.

Janice noted that there is the need for a revolution from a set of youth who are willing and ready to challenge the status-quo. She said although people who challenge the status-quo, the “sacred rules” of their time are seen as dangerous there is the need to educate our children on acceptance, cooperation, courage and to stand true to their values and what they believe in because it is children that grow up to become the youth of the nation and continent at large.


Current Projects

Janice currently runs AfriYAN Cabo Verde, serves on the board of AfriYAN West and Central Africa; a continental Network which she describes as a symbol of African global connections and youth empowerment for social change.

She said it provides a way to achieve more “if we work together and exchange experiences and opportunities between each other.”

In 2017, she was nominated to attend the AfriYAN West and Central Africa restructuration, in Senegal, by the Cape Verdean Youth Federation.

She recalls that “At that moment, I was thinking about “retiring” from youth activism to dedicate to my professional projects and that was supposed to be my last consultation on that level. However, as a delegate from my country, representing the Cape-Verdean youth, I felt that it was my duty to present my candidature to the board of AfriYAN West and Central Africa, as a way to approach Cape Verdean youth to youth from others countries on the continent. It was very competitive but we made it. AfriYAN Cabo Verde was born out of this experience. The principal objective of this first mandate is to implement the project in Cabo Verde and set the bases for future collaboration.”

Janice also started the Verbum Tactus, a special project which begun with the sole aim of voicing her thoughts, feelings and reflections in articles, poetry and quotes. She describes it in her blog as to “invite to feel, think and take action.”

According to the blogger cum poet, this became an art education project combining writing, photography, video and performance as a way of social intervention. You can follow the blog here: , and the Facebook Page here:

Answering questions on what three things she will channel her energy into, granted she’s the President of Africa, Janice listed education, inclusion and global partnerships for sustainable development. She elaborates further below:

Education – promoting an education as I describe that I believe that is needed on previous questions, involving skills as cooperative mindset, peace, self-confidence, emotional intelligence and similar.

Inclusion – creating spaces for everyone and respect for human rights.

Global partnerships for Sustainable Development – the world, especially Africa with all its natural resources, have resources for everyone to live happy and prosper. We are just using it in the wrong way.


She also advised the youth to “Work on yourself, find your best version, be happy, build prosperity, and give back to your community, with love. Dream and dare to make your dreams come true: our dreams together will build the world we dream about. This is your legacy to everyone who will come after you. When one person evolve, everything evolves around them.”

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) simplified. What are they?


Also referred to as Global Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 developmental goals that emanated from a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. It was approved and adopted by all the United Nations Member States in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure peace and prosperity for all by 2030. The SDGs come in as a replacement for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which commenced a global effort in 2000 to deal with the indignity of poverty and hunger, preventing fatal diseases, and widening primary education to all children, as well as other development priorities. These 17 goals that constitute the SDGs are:

The SDGs.

GOAL 1. No Poverty:

It is a target of the United Nations to ensure that extreme poverty is eradicated among all people [living on less than $1.25 a day] everywhere. The goal is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030. With some disabilities identified to be linked with poverty leading to malnutrition, poor healthcare and dangerous living conditions, this goal is expected to also help reduce disabilities among people.

GOAL 2. Zero Hunger:

By 2030, hunger is expected to be ended among, in particular, the poor and people in vulnerable conditions, including infants. The goal targets availability of safe, nutritious and sufficient food through sustainable improved agriculture and other food production systems. Ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture is therefore the core of this goal.

GOAL 3. Good Health and Well-being:

The target of this goal is to reduce mortality, especially maternal and premature mortality among people, and also to achieve a universal access to good healthcare service. It aims at strengthening the prevention and treatment of all forms of substance abuse, as well as ending epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, tropical diseases, and other communicable diseases.

GOAL 4. Quality Education:

The Goal 4 of the SDGs aims at ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. This includes technical and vocational training for people.

GOAL 5. Gender Equality:

The core of this goal is to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls to play active roles in their society. It also seeks to end all forms of violence and discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.

GOAL 6. Clean Water and Sanitation:

The target of this goal is to achieve an equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all everywhere. It is to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation.

GOAL 7. Affordable and Clean Energy:

The target of this goal is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. This is also to ensure that, by 2030, energy used is safe for life on the planet.

GOAL 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth:

This goal is targeted at promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable per capita economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. The goal, thus, is to ensure a simultaneous improvement in both the economy and lives of people in the economy.

GOAL 9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure:

The SDG 9 aims to, by 2030, build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, including regional and transborder infrastructure, and foster innovation to support economic development and human well-being, with a focus on affordable and equitable access for all.

GOAL 10. Reduced Inequality:

By 2030, this goal seeks to progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average. Thus, the focus of this goal is to reduce inequality within and among countries.

GOAL 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities:

It is a target of the SGDs to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The goal here is to ensure universal access to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services, and to upgrade slums.

GOAL 12. Responsible Consumption and Production:

The 12th goal on the list of SDGs is to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. The SDGs, by 2030, aims to achieve a sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources, which includes avoiding wastage of resources.

GOAL 13. Climate Action:

Through policies, education or awareness creation, and the strengthening of resistance and adaptive capacity to climate related dangers, the goal 13 of the SDGs aims at establishing urgent actions to combat climate change and its impacts.

GOAL 14. Life Below Water:

The target here is to provide protection for aquatic life and habitat through policies and environmental protection mechanisms. This goal is meant to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

GOAL 15. Life on Land:

With this goal, the SDGs seeks to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and stop and reverse land degradation and also halt biodiversity loss.

GOAL 16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions:

In the absence of peace and justice, the realization of the above goals cannot see the participation of individuals. Therefore, promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels are what this goal seeks to achieve by 2030.

GOAL 17. Partnership to Achieve the Goals:

The realization of the SDGs can only be possible under strong global partnerships and cooperation, considering the inequality in global economies and resources of nations. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), achieving the SDGs will require US$5 trillion to $7 trillion in annual global investment, and this as well justifies the need for partnership for the goals. So, through the pledge to “Leave No One Behind,” countries are committed to fast-track progress for those furthest behind first. And this is the 17th goal among the SDGs.


Clearly, these goal, if realized, will make our planet a better place to live on than it is today. And to achieve these goals, everyone needs to get involved. Everyone’s creativity, knowhow, financial resources and technology is needed for the realization of the SDGs.

Published by:

Ebenezer Otu Sackey, volunteer at GYN