I didn’t wake up like this: Mareena Robinson Snowden’s rise in Nuclear Engineering

Why this engineer does not like to be called a genius.

Mareena Robinson Snowden, Fellow at the National Nuclear Security Administration

Being an engineer was never the big dream for Mareena Robinson Snowden. It’s hard to imagine now, given her credentials: she majored in physics at Florida A&M University (FAMU) and went on to pursue a PhD in nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). And while she is currently a fellow at the National Nuclear Security Administration, she asserts that she “didn’t wake up like this.”

She was a typical kid, gravitating towards the subjects that came easily to her, like English and history, and shying away from math and science, which did not. “As a young girl, I did not understand struggle as a natural part of learning…It wasn’t until high school that a teacher challenged my fear of math and science, and reframed struggle as something positive.” She attributes that reframing, and a bet with her Dad, to her current career successes. “We agreed as a freshman…that I would try physics as a major, and if I hated it or wasn’t good at it, I could change my track. I didn’t know before then how academically competitive I was, but once I accepted the challenge, I put my head down and got to work — and let me tell you, the work was hard!”

Her approach to her studies was simple: “As a college student paying for my education, I reframed my relationship with professors as transactional, where I was obligated to give my best effort and they were obligated to help me learn the material, no matter how many office hours it took.” The hours she put in definitely paid off.

As an undergraduate, she earned the opportunity to participate in MIT’s Summer Research Program (MSRP), building a prototype liquid scintillator neutron veto detector for dark matter searches. “Coming from a historically black college to contributing to research at MIT — one of the leading technical universities in the world — affirmed the quality of my education and research training at FAMU. It was during my summers as an MSRP intern that I built a vision for myself — as a graduate student at MIT.”

Her journey from physics to nuclear engineering was rather unintentional. Though she had been admitted to the Nuclear Science and Engineering department at MIT, she didn’t really explore research options in that field until she noticed that she spent a lot of her free time reading about nuclear weapons and disarmament. Through her research she found a way to integrate that newfound interest with her physics background. Her dissertation ended up centering around a novel way of detecting nuclear warheads through different types of radiation, and is something she is particularly proud of. “Coming into my graduate career with little coding experience, then successfully building a radiation transport model that allowed me to infer something about the physical world is a huge source of pride for me. It shows that I am capable of crafting a research question and teaching myself new technical skills to answer it.”

After graduate school, she wanted the opportunity to explore the US government’s role in her field from the inside. Her work now is very different from the research she used to do, but is an equally important learning experience. She is a strong believer that everything happens for a reason, and that with every occurrence, good or bad, there is an associated lesson and purpose that one should look at. As for the next step in her own journey, she plans to explore more of the think tank world with a fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

One thing she wants people to take away from her story is not to be stopped by fear. “Fear is a real thing and you will be scared at multiple points along the way…What we have to work through is how to persist in spite of that.” It’s part of why she doesn’t like the term “genius” — it can be a deterrent to people who don’t see themselves in that box, and that label often discredits the effort that people put into their work. “I have never and still don’t consider myself in that box. I consider myself someone who is willing to work hard to realize the vision that I have for myself.”

This story was written by Shreya Chaganti, wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Learn more about our fellowship at wogrammer.org/fellowship.