By Kate McAlpine
Ciara Sivels is the first African American woman to earn a PhD from the University of Michigan nuclear engineering and radiological sciences program, an accomplishment that drew attention from national media such as the Huffington Post and Blavity.
While she is proud to be a graduate of the nation’s top nuclear engineering program, and while the University of Michigan is proud to call her an alum, there is a shared uneasiness about the milestone itself. Did it really need to take until 2019? If we were as equal a community as we’d like to be, the answer would be no.
So here is Dr. Sivels in her own words on exposure, grad school and choosing where to put her talent.
In the interviews you did after defending your thesis in October, you talked about the importance of representation and exposure, and that you were heading toward culinary school even as of high school. What was pulling you in that direction?
A lot of people in my family cook. It was something that came natural to me, it was fun… I guess I was kind of like, “I could probably do this as a career.”
And I was making good grades and stuff. I don’t know—I did lots of things in high school. I was in band, stepping, scholastic bowl team, praise dancing, super active in my church. So, nothing really ever stood out.
So I was like, “Culinary is something I’m good at,” and I really liked it. It was like, “Oh, I’m passionate about this thing, so I’ll do that.” Without ever considering STEM [laughing]. Which is funny to me, but that’s just how it happened.
Did you have anyone in your family who had done a STEM degree?
So my mom had done a computer science degree at Hampton University, which is an HBCU (historically black college or university) in Virginia.
And funny enough, I was a senior at MIT. I was getting my nuclear degree, and my advisor at the time was the chair of the department. And he and my dad were having a conversation about nuclear subs.
And I’m thinking, “How does my dad know anything about nuclear subs?” And I found out that day, after going all through MIT, that my dad used to work on nuclear subs and never told me.
He’s a government contractor at the shipyard in Norfolk. And I never made the nuclear connection. I just thought he was making stuff up [laughing].
And he was like, “No,” and my mom was like, “Yeah, he worked on subs and stuff,” and I was like, “You guys never told me! Thanks!”
So my parents literally just let me pick whatever I wanted to do. And they could’ve. My dad could’ve said, I worked on some subs, I think you’d be good at this. But it just so happened that I ended up in nuclear anyway.
You were passionate about cooking, so what made you think, “yeah!” when your teacher recommended STEM? Instead of saying, “No, I want to do culinary!”
Well, I actually did say that for a while! I was like, “Uh, I don’t know.” So to put some stuff in context, I was in this regular chemistry class. It was the first time I was taking an upper level class. I was the youngest student, but I did really well, and that was when my teacher was like, “You should take the AP class.”
When we took the AP version, that’s when I started to…like, “OK this is a little challenging, but I like it. This is interesting to me.” Right?
So when I took the AP class, from there, that’s when he was like, “You should really look into STEM.” And that was when I was like, “OK, maybe he has a point because…I like this.” Right? But I wasn’t exposed to it before and didn’t know it was a possibility.
And so when I took a physics class at a community college, that’s when I got into more nuclear physics type things. And then I was kind of like, “OK, I can probably do this instead.” But it wasn’t immediately like, “Yes, I want to do this.” It grew on me. It was not instantaneous (laughing).
Because even my culinary teacher was surprised when I was like, “Yeah, I’m not gonna take the course next semester.” So for everyone it was like, “Well, we thought you were going to do this, you know, and now you do this switch,” but…it happens.
So you went from high school to MIT—what was that transition like?
[Laughing] I just had a conversation with another MIT alum—MIT alums that come to Michigan for PhDs, it’s like, a thing. So we were just talking about our MIT experiences, and we were just saying, to sum it up, it was the hardest thing I’ll probably ever do in life. Literally.
And people always find that weird, but if you talk to other MIT alums that came—like went through the wringers like I did—because I didn’t take physics before, so I just took that community college class. So I started at MIT in the summer under the program “Interphase” to help get me acclimated to the academics since I wasn’t “ready.” What they consider ready, right?
That community college class was about people who discover things. Like Newton, the laws of physics. But there was no math.
What? Physics is all math!
Exactly! Which is why I struggled at MIT.
Yeah, it was pretty bad. I always tell people—if you know physics, you know vectors are everything, right? I didn’t know what a vector was when I got to MIT. I was in this summer class, and I always thought they were drawing these arrows, and I’m like, “I don’t know what these arrows all are.” So it was a learning curve.
So I struggled. Like, I really struggled. But, that journey made me the person I am today. Molded me, and helped me in my grad school process because when I started, coming from there, I had a lot more confidence, a different perspective on engineering in general. And yeah, I think if I didn’t have that experience, things would be a lot different.
But that really shaped how I thought about the world. How I thought about problems, how I went about solving problems. And then making that transition here.
How was the transition to U-M?
Undergrad is about academics. Grad school is about research. So for me, what MIT gave me was this idea of problem solving so that I could contribute to the field.
And you’re like, “OK, let’s think about the problems. What are my options for solutions?” And my thesis was kind of structured around that idea. It was like, “OK, here’s the limitations of the detectors currently out there. Here’s a detector that you can try, a new analysis technique that you can use, and maybe, if you need a simulation tool in the future, here’s a simulation tool that you can use.”
That MIT thinking helped me—especially when things broke or I was stuck somewhere. So I was like, “OK, what are my options?” That really helped me here at Michigan.
What were the social transitions like?
I grew up in a rural town. It’s called Hickory. I lived on 9 acres. Very country. And the school that I went to was predominantly white. So I kind of was used to that. I’m able to find my niches and my groups and things like that.
But for me, that transition wasn’t hard because my parents… OK, so both of my parents went to HBCUs. And there’s a different mindset when you go to a university like that versus going somewhere like MIT, right?
They’re predominantly black, and so they teach you a lot about, you know, what that means to be black in the world. I didn’t go to an HBCU, but I grew up with those same values.
My parents instilled in me: Alright, you’re in this school with all these white kids, but you’re not white. And you just need to know that going in. People may be your friends, or they may not, because of how you look. And I learned that very young. And some people don’t get that conversation.
For me, because I had that background, I already knew what the battle was. So, in high school, most of the time, I was the only black person in my classes. And I was used to that—that’s what my parents prepared me for.
When I came to MIT, it was the same thing. But at MIT, it shifted a little bit because it’s a really small school, and where I lived—basically all the black people lived in the same dorm at MIT. Or if they didn’t live there, that’s kind of where we congregated.
So I had a really strong black community there, and I was super-active in NSBE (the National Society of Black Engineers). I went to, like, every NSBE. I had a lot of positions in NSBE. I’d call my parents and be like, “Oh, I need a new suit for NSBE…” I loved NSBE! So, for me, that was my own way of connecting with my community outside of MIT.
And then, when I got to Michigan, it was similar, right? I got connected with SMES-G (Society of Minority Engineers & Scientists – Graduate Component) and I also, like I said, I had that MIT to Michigan connection, so I had a lot of MIT alums here. And I just fostered my community that way. And sure I had other friends that weren’t minorities.
But I always was prepared for that. It was just something that my parents just taught me when I was growing up.
And it wasn’t like a negative. Not like, “Oh, you can’t have any friends,” or anything like that. It was, “Just keep in mind, you’re smart, but if you don’t look like your peer who is just as smart, you may be treated differently, right? And so you just have to be aware of that.”
And a lot of times, I really didn’t… Like, when you’re a kid and they’re telling you these things, you’re like, “[sigh] You’re being dramatic. Times aren’t like that anymore.”
And then stuff would happen, and I’d be like, “Man…Yeah, like, it’s not different. [laughing] They’re right!”
So, yeah. So when people are like, “How do you feel about being the first black…”
Ooh, I don’t know. Like, it’s weird!
This should have happened sooner.
With a lot of these engineering majors, it’s just unfortunate that women and minorities aren’t as prevalent. But hopefully this will change.
And luckily, the nuclear department here, we had me, Crystal (Green), and Val—Valerie Nwadeyi. Crystal graduated a few months ago. Or she defended a few months ago. And Val is in her third year. So she’s got like 2 more years.
So, there’ll be 3 of us [laughing]. But after that… I think that’s pretty good. I definitely think people are seeing why this is important, making strides to change things.
How did you decide on nuclear?
I was reading about antimatter, and that just blew my mind! Like what is this, we can’t see it, and it makes all this energy. I just thought it was the coolest thing.
And when I got to MIT, they were like, “Oh…no one works on that. So you should find something else.”
The other thing—and people always say, “Oh, why do you like that?” But weapons sparked my interest. And nonproliferation started being like a bigger thing in all of treaty negotiations taking place.
So, I was into nonproliferation, not sure what I really wanted to do, didn’t even know about detectors. And I took this nonproliferation course—really liked it—at MIT, but I was actually planning to do Teach for America (TFA).
You weren’t planning on a PhD?
It was the same thing as culinary, right? Like, when I was doing culinary, STEM was never an option. Once I got into MIT, grad school wasn’t an option. Because I wanted to teach.
I literally was going for second-round interviews at TFA, and my faculty advisor, Professor (Richard) Lester, just really steered against that.
And understandably because a lot of people’s argument was, “If you become a professor, you can still teach. Why not get the PhD?”
I’m like, “Er, I don’t want to.” I wanted to teach middle school. I wanted to target those populations because I feel like that’s where the gap is.
So at MIT, January is our independent activities period (IAP), so we don’t have classes. During that IAP, I did Four Weeks for America with a teacher. And that’s where I saw, like, “Oh my god! This is bad!” And that made me want to do TFA more.
And no shade to the teacher cuz I really liked her. But some of these people, they come from elite backgrounds, and it’s a little bit difficult for them to relate to the students. The teacher that I had, she was really struggling to connect with them. And they didn’t have any respect for her.
Because these are inner city kids; they’ve seen a lot. They’re young, they’ve seen people die, all kinds of things. They don’t want to be there.
That’s when it clicked for me [finger snap]. That’s what I want to do. I did all my hours for a program that would certify me to teach sixth through eighth grade. I was convinced I was not doing engineering for grad school.
But my faculty advisor was like, “No! You haven’t done any research. You don’t know what you like. There are so many things out there that you could pick!”
So, I got the GEM Master’s fellowship my senior year. I was still debating if I wanted to do a PhD.
Now, I’ve done the PhD, but I’m still super passionate about teaching. So I’m trying to find ways to get back to that.
At Johns Hopkins, I just started working with this group—it’s called Math Mentors. So we have mentees and we teach them math. They’re elementary kids though, so it’s a little more challenging, but it’s fun.
But yeah, that’s where I think that we’re losing them. In middle school. And part of it is that they don’t see that representation, so they don’t think it’s possible, or it’s too hard, all of these things.
And I’m like, pffff… MIT was hard! Life is not easy. But what do you want? Do you want the degree or not? [laughing]
So what brought you to Michigan?
Michigan was the only place I applied for a PhD because they gave me a waiver. And so I came to visit, and I really liked it. Met Professor (Sara) Pozzi, they were like, “If you want to do detection work, this is the place to be.” Like, “It’s the number one school,” and all these things. And I had really never heard about Michigan before because I was at MIT, right?
Yeah, they think they’re pretty special.
[Laughing] And they say the same thing (about Michigan)! Michigan’s like “Oh, MIT, we’re number 1.” And in some respects it makes sense. Glenn Knoll wrote the book on detection, and he was faculty here.
So I was like, “Oh, I have to go to Michigan. I have to go there.”
But the issue was my grades from MIT obviously weren’t as good as what they were looking for. And so, I came in conditional admittance.
And I didn’t have any research experience, and that’s something I communicated when I came in for the interviews and stuff. Because every summer, I did teaching programs, so I never really got a chance to do any research.
So with the GEM fellowship, I went to Pacific Northwest the summer before I came to Michigan. That gave me the first taste of research experience. And I liked it. And so after the first year, I went back to Pacific Northwest, and I came back and was like, “Oh, I want to do my PhD.”
So, that’s kind of how that transition happened. But, yeah. I didn’t do any research before. I would not recommend that [laughing].
So in another interview, you said there were times you felt like leaving…
Ohhh, yes… So I got my master’s degree, I had a research project in mind that I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure how it would get funded.
And the issue was that no one knew what it was. It was no one at Michigan’s area of expertise. It was Pacific Northwest’s area of expertise. But because I’d been going there every summer, it became my area of expertise. And I wanted to do it here at Michigan. Because you need a school, right? Pacific Northwest can’t give me my degree.
I was working with Professor Pozzi, but I wanted to detect something different than what she normally would. So we’re talking, like, Special Nuclear Material versus explosions, right? Professor Pozzi is used to identifying uranium and plutonium that could be used to make weapons, and I wanted to detect radioxenon—this radioactive gas you get from a nuclear explosion.
And there was other things too. Imposter syndrome is, like, a real thing. And so for me, I was at the end of my Master’s and I was nervous. Like, “Oh my god. If I stay for my PhD, I’m gonna have to take the quals, am I gonna pass the quals? Like, I don’t think I’m gonna pass the quals, so maybe I should just go somewhere else!”
So, yeah, I even applied to a few places after my master’s just to see…maybe it’s a sign. Maybe if I get in somewhere else, it’s a sign.
And when you’re at a crossroads like that, it can be really important to have someone in your corner. One of those people, for me, was Dr. (Justin) McIntyre at Pacific Northwest. He encouraged me to stay for my PhD after getting my Master’s and really believed in my idea to improve radioxenon detectors.
And when Professor Pozzi got the CVT (Consortium for Verification Technology) [click], it was smooth sailing. That grant helped me because it really put a spotlight on research that Pacific Northwest and I were doing.
Why radioxenon detectors?
Radioxenon detectors can tell us if anyone set off a nuclear bomb, like, anywhere in the world, by measuring the radioxenon that gets into the air. Like there’s radioxenon detectors running right now in Washington. Right now in Japan. Right now in Russia. These things are running 24 hours a day, and they’re always taking data. I want to improve the resolution because the better your resolution, the higher the confidence when you say, “Yes, I measured radioxenon.”
How common is it for people to have a PhD problem that they have in mind to do? I’ve heard other students go the other way, where they’re just kind of at sea and they’ll do whatever their advisor says because they don’t know the field well enough.
So, I’ll say that it depends on the advisor. In her group, you come in, like your first two years, you take courses, you gain skills, right? And there’s projects that have money that need work done. And so her group is kind of like, “Oh, these are the projects, and you can pick one of these projects.”
But she’s not gonna tell you what your thesis is gonna be about. Like, you have to figure that out. It’s a negotiation type of deal. Like, “I think this is interesting.” And then she’ll be like, “OK, what’s significant about it? Like, what can you contribute to the field?”
And Shaun (Clarke) is super good with that—framing stories and helping you think about how to tell the story. Asking your questions, what’s the big picture and things like that. But they’re not about to come up with everything for you.
Other people come in and it’s like, “This is your project, and have at it for five years.” Say it’s like a government agency and they have a specific outcome that they want, then you kind of know what you’re gonna do. Or you at least have some metrics that you’re gonna go by. And some people like that, right? Some people want to just know what their topic is.
For us, we get a little more flexibility. And so, for me, I just took that to mean if I wanted to bring my own stuff, I could.
I met with a student yesterday who is thinking about taking over my project, and I was saying, there’s so many aspects that you could—like rabbit holes you could go down with radioxenon. So you have to be careful. You gotta pick something and stick to it. That’s the difficulty with trying to frame your own project.
And especially working with national labs too, because they have lots of projects, right? Lots of things they’re trying to solve. So you can get down a rabbit hole pretty easily.
Speaking of storytelling, how have you improved radioxenon detection?
Oh goodness… You know, I thought it was pretty cool, but we’ll see what the community decides to do.
Basically, they use this detector that has two components: there’s a hollow plastic detector that holds the air sample and detects the betas—or whatchacall…electrons. And then there’s a detector that detects gammas because when radioxenon decays, it produces a beta and a gamma. So it’s coincidence, right? You have to see the beta and gamma at the same time. So for me, I was like, OK, how can we improve these detectors?
Plastic detectors are very…rugged. But the resolution is not ideal. They have this thing called memory effect. So when you measure a sample, say, if the sample is really “hot”, like it’s emitting a lot of radiation, you’ll see the background from that sample in the next sample. And the next sample. And maybe in the next sample if it’s super hot.
If you can get rid of the memory effect, you can measure more air samples. For me, those were the two things I was really looking at. Improving the sensitivity by improving the resolution and memory effect. Professor Pozzi’s group works a lot with stilbene, so the idea was, “OK, we have this stilbene, and it’s been shown in the past that it doesn’t have any memory effect. But no one’s engineered a cell that you can put in the field.”
Stilbene is a crystal, and it’s fairly new, right? So people are still looking at ways to grow it, ways to machine it, how can we get these different shapes because it’s very brittle. It’s very fragile.
And so, every time they built something, it broke. And they tried to—there’s lots of geometries out there, and I won’t go all into that. But it’s a lot easier to make a hollow detector out of plastic than out of stilbene.
So everyone was like—it’ll never work. Like, you will never make a stilbene cell. It’s gonna break, all these things. And it definitely broke (laughing). The first one I made definitely broke. But for me, that was the biggest thing. Like, I wanna prove them wrong. I wanna show them that you can make a stilbene cell.
People never thought that stilbene was gonna be a thing in radioxenon, but we got some really cool results, and so I was like, “Well, there’s my contribution!” [laughing]
So, the next step would be for them to test it in the field. Well, first it would be to optimize it. There are still some issues with the light collection…that geometry could certainly be improved. And then testing it in the field to see how well it works.
So… It was fun. Even though it broke the first time. That was…devastating. [laughter]
So, I can credit you with the first stilbene radioxenon detector?
Yeah. Yeah [laughing]. Well, I guess you could say the first operable. Because they made stilbene detectors in the past, but they just didn’t work.
If you could give advice to professors who are mentoring graduate students of color or women, what would you suggest as things to do or not do?
Let’s see… That advisor/student dynamic is weird. It’s like, sometimes you just want to feel like human. Maybe sometimes we don’t feel like we’re being seen, or don’t feel valuable. Sometimes you just feel like you’re a worker, maybe not a person.
Like we don’t have to be friends, you know what I mean? But cut me some slack sometimes [laughing]. Or, you know, say, “You did a good job.”
And that may not be women- and minority-specific. That might just be advisors sometimes don’t think about those things.
But sometimes, as the student, you just have to know what you brought to the table at the end of the day, whether anyone else sees it or not.
And is there anything you wish other students had known or understood?
That’s tough… For me, I always wished people understood my perspective, but it’s not easy, right? Because it’s very hard to stand in someone else’s shoes. Like, I will never know what it feels to be like Latino. Or white, right? Cuz I’m not.
And it’s hard because you want to be able to relate. Sometimes I wish that my peers were able to see things from my perspective.
That’s something we all have to work on all the time, is our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. But yeah, we can never see completely.
No, you can’t! And that’s why this is so…tough. But I just kind of said what I had to say, with my peers in general. If I didn’t think something was right or I disagreed, I’m just gonna tell you I disagree.
I mean, there were certainly some instances of things that happened that I was like, “OK, now this is a little out of control.” And maybe I wouldn’t say something in that respect because you don’t want to be the angry person. But, yeah.
And it’s hard because…it is what it is. Either you’re going to get it or you’re not. So, either way I’m still gonna do my work.
But that’s just the perspective that I had going in, and it’s kind of how my parents raised me. Like, things are not gonna go your way, people are not going to see the world the way you see it, and you have two options: You can be upset about it and try to force it, or you can continue doing what you were supposed to be doing in the beginning! Like, before you cared about their opinions. Is their opinion gonna kill you or stop you? No, so…
They sound like strong people.
OH. That’s an understatement. I did a talk, like at WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), and I was telling them I used to call home crying. Like “Oh my god, this happened, or that happened.”
And they were like, “OK. Suck it up.”
Like, “You knew what you were getting yourself into. You’re upset, but there’s nothing you can do, right? You have to keep going forward.” And for me that’s…what I needed. Because otherwise you would just wallow in that. And you don’t have time for that. You have to get stuff done.
Like when my equipment broke. [sigh] It was like, I can be mad…forever…or I can figure out, OK, my equipment broke. What am I gonna do now?
And certainly I was mad. [laughing] I was mad for a good amount of time. But I was also like, “OK, let me call these people, how fast can they get me another one?”
People ask, “Did they want you to go to MIT? Did they want you to do this? Did they want you to get a PhD?”
And I’m like, “It’s not necessarily that they want me to do anything. It was more that whatever I did, I needed to be good at it.” That was their thinking.
Because right, if I went to culinary school, they wouldn’t have stopped me. I just needed to be good at it. So, that’s just how I was raised.
Sivels is now a senior professional staff member at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Her advisor at U-M was Sara Pozzi, a professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences.