This past June, Mareena Robinson Snowden became the first Black woman to ever receive her Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She announced the milestone in an Instagram post:
“No one can tell me God isn’t. Grateful is the best word I have to describe how I feel. Grateful for every part of this experience – highs and lows,” she wrote. “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.”
The Miami native told CNBC that she has often been the only Black person in her STEM classes, something she definitely struggled with when she enrolled at MIT in 2011. But it was Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician portrayed in Hidden Figures, that inspired Snowden to keep pushing.
“I had a picture of Katherine Johnson on my wall right after ‘Hidden Figures’ came out, because she was a model for me,” says Snowden. “People ask me all the time, ‘Who’s your role model?’ and you know, you pick and choose from different places. And it was like now, I have a tangible woman. I have Katherine Johnson, who was a mathematician and a black woman killing it.”
And as Snowden starts her new position working on nuclear security policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, her advice to other young Black women in STEM is to remain centered in who they are.
“When you go into these spaces, whether its M.I.T., or Google or Apple, you don’t change yourself for the institution. The institution needs to change for you,” she says. “They need to grow because you’re there, and if you don’t bring your full self to the table, then they don’t have the opportunity to improve.”