From ‘Slow Learner’ to Nuclear Arms Thought Leader: Dr. Mareena Robinson Snowden

Dr. Mareena Robinson Snowden, the first Black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), describes having an adversarial relationship with math and science as a child, fearing her classes far more than enjoying them.

“Every time I got a question wrong or a teacher called on me and I didn’t know what he was talking about, it further confirmed to me that this wasn’t for me, that this wasn’t the field I should pursue,” Robinson Snowden said.

What she would realize later, however, is that her struggle was a normal aspect of learning nearly everyone faces, saying, “We often give students

Dr. Mareena Robinson Snowden

the lesson before we teach them how to learn.”

“It can be pretty demoralizing, this idea that you’re going to get the answer wrong a bunch of times before you get it right,” Robinson Snowden added. “But it’s not because you’re not good at the subject, it’s just because struggle is required to learn anything.”

For women and underrepresented minorities in STEM, internalizing that struggle as evidence of “science is not for me” may be harder to escape. For that reason, Robinson Snowden has been a steady advocate for women, especially women of color, entering STEM.

In fact, BET Network’s Black Girls Rock! awarded her with the Girls Rock Tech Award in 2018 for her work and advocacy. 

During her acceptance speech, Robinson Snowden spoke directly “to any young girl who may be watching, who has even the smallest inclination toward science or engineering,” saying, “the truth is that you are a legitimate participant in that space and we need you.”

It was an impassioned speech for someone who calls herself “very practical, very matter-of-fact.” After all, she says the decision to enter STEM itself was more out of necessity than passion. 

From a single parent home, Robinson Snowden chose to study physics, because she knew opportunities would be available upon graduation, opportunities that would, as she put it, “pay the bills.”

“For me, college

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