Millennial Moment: First Black Woman to Earn a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from University of Michigan Shows ‘Em How it’s Done

We see them. They’re leading the way as influencers in their own right. Black millennials who are ahead of the curve and serving in a lane, and league, all their own. This four-part series delves into who they are and what’s next for them. This is Part 2.


She’s very much in a league of her own. She forgot that she applied to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), ranked the #1 university in the world and particularly known for its high-ranking engineering program.


“I was accepted into MIT — I was surprised,” Ciara Sivels, a Virginia native, said. “I forgot I applied to MIT. I didn’t know what MIT was when I applied. … It was kind of like, ‘Wow. Now what do I do?’”


Sivels, born in 1990, now works as senior professional staff at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Before that, she went to MIT and majored in nuclear science and engineering with a focus on nuclear nonproliferation and a concentration in middle school education.


She graduated from MIT in 2013 and then earned a Master’s Degree from the University of Michigan in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences in 2015. Afterward, she received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan graduating in 2018, the first African American woman to graduate from this program.


“Never in a million years would I have predicted that I’d be working as a nuclear engineer in a major research laboratory,” Sivels said in an MIT post. “My original dream was to be a pastry chef.”


During a Zoom interview with Sivels, she told The Michigan Chronicle how she evolved her life plans and changed the face of nuclear engineering. During the discussion, Sivels, wearing leopard print hoop earrings with a natural hairstyle and beaming smile, came across as very unassuming, which she says she gets a lot. She even chooses to not tell people her trailblazing achievements to avoid attention. But she still shines brightly.


“If you ask any of my friends, I’m very unassuming,” she said, smiling and laughing throughout the interview, adding that it is not her personality to tell people who she is at first. “You will get a shift and immediately (people will) expect you to be a certain way.”


Sivels said that things like her accomplishments are milestones but also stepping stones to get to where she is in the next phase of her life.

While she can’t talk too much about her current projects, she is working on nuclear engineering endeavors looking at radiation and how it affects things. This goes along the lines of radiation imaging, like x-rays and cancer research.


“That is nuclear engineering at a basic level,” she said, adding that she mentors young boys and girls and wants to teach them that people who look like them can make it. She even made a cartoon about it through


“That was important to me,” she said of showing children representations of herself in cartoon form. Her cartoon self has an afro. “Kids will start to see themselves in these different areas.”


Sivels’ work led her to help develop a unique detection system for radioxenon, a gas linked to explosions from nuclear weapons testing, according to the MIT website. She also worked in experimental studies to detect the release of radioxenon gas from underground nuclear weapons testing, an effort driven by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the website added. This research expanded to become the foundation of her graduate studies at the University of Michigan.


“I helped develop a novel device to improve monitoring stations all over the world, where detectors run 24/7,” she says on the website. “We fabricated something that could plug and play in existing technology at these stations.”


Crystal A. Green, of the University of Michigan, said that the duo supported each other in finishing their Ph.D. programs.


“What I admired about Ciara, was her tenacity and her caring spirit that allowed her to reach back as she excelled further,” Green said. “Whenever I was having a difficult time in the program, she was always there for me and offered me unbiased advice on how to move forward. When I asked her to work alongside me as an instructor in the NERS-sponsored DAPCEP outreach program, ‘Glow Blue,’ Ciara did not hesitate and she specifically taught on the global impacts of nuclear non-proliferation.”


Green added that in this outreach program the two taught other young Black, Brown, and minority middle and high school students about nuclear engineering.


“Seeing black women Ph.D. students represented showed our students that their futures were bright and possibilities were endless,” she said. “Even though I finished my Ph.D. a short while after Ciara, Ciara blazed a trail that made things a little easier for me, other Black students, and women that came after. … I am excited to see what the future has in store for her and grateful to have her as a friend and colleague.”


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