Ciara Sivels is the first Black woman to earn a doctoral degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan.
Originally, Dr. Sivels was interested in chemistry, but an advisor at her undergraduate alma mater – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – steered her into the nuclear engineering field after Sivels expressed interest in energy, antimatter, and the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. After graduating from MIT, she had brief stints as a chemistry teaching assistant and a Teach for America intern, which sparked her interest in an academic career.
Since Dr. Sivels had not taken basic physic courses in high school or at MIT, she was not as well prepared for a graduate level program in nuclear engineering in comparison to her peers. However, the University of Michigan let her enroll with a conditional admittance to adjust and eventually matriculate into the doctoral program. She went on to land a fellowship with the GEM National Consortium and connect with the Pacific Northwest National Lab to help her thesis work pertaining to treaty verification using beta-gamma coincidence detectors.
When she first began her program, Dr. Sivels was the only Black student pursing a doctorate in her field. This prompted her to work with the Detroit Pre-College Engineering Program which aims to promote STEM to students in the Detroit area. She also founded the Women in Nuclear Engineering in Radiological Sciences group which allows women of all backgrounds to meet and discuss the barriers and discrimination they experience while pursing a degree in a STEM field.
Now that she has completed her degree, Dr. Sivels wants to continue to increase the representation of women of color in STEM. “It’s the same thing all over again: if you don’t have Black women students, then of course you won’t have Black women professors,” she said.