Black Girls Rock!: Girls Rock! Tech Recipient Dr. Mareena Robinson Snowden Shares Her Unique Outlook On STEM
Dr. Mareena Robinson Snowden shares how her early struggle with math and science, as well as her unique experience as an underrepresented minority in STEM, was not a deterrent to her becoming the first black woman to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT.
Congrats to all the MIT Graduates - especially the Graduates of Color!
One of the things I cherish most about my time at MIT is the relationships I was fortunate enough to develop, with some of the most brilliant technical minds. Together we not only grew into skilled researchers, but built bonds based on mutual accountability and support. We studied together, partied together, provided listening ears after frustrating days in the lab, advice after unsure interactions with advisors, and showed up whenever and where ever needed - for presentation practice session, start-up launches, and post victory celebrations. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and this is true for scientists and engineers as well. I grateful to my friends for the example they set for me, for their motivation and for their love.
“I can’t wait for the day to graduate and just walk across the stage,” she says. “That’s going to be huge, because I’m going to be walking with everybody with me. My great-grandmother. My grandmother. My grandfather. My father, who had no idea about a physics equation. So that’s really powerful.”
-Mareena Robinson Snowden, MIT News, 2014
Keynote Address - 2018 Dr. Dorothy Height Scholarship and Leadership Luncheon
April 2018 | Frederick County, Maryland
I recently had the opportunity to share my thoughts on education, work, and perseverance as the keynote speaker at the 2018 Dr. Dorothy Height Scholarship and Leadership Luncheon.
This annual luncheon celebrates the scholastic accomplishments of local high school students, awards scholarships and book awards, as well as highlights the contributions of local community leaders. The FCAC DST is doing amazing work in the Frederick County community, giving out over $19,000 in scholarships to 17 impressive high school students with proven records of academic excellence and community service.
Since the early 20th century, the Divine 9 - the endearing name used to describe the nine historically African American international Greek lettered organizations - have served as a resource and support system in the educational advancement and strengthening of social bonds of black students, entrepreneurs and professionals. They use their platform to provide counter-narratives to the stereotypes of blackness, and in the case of DST, womanhood in America and globally.
I appreciate the FCAC DST for the work they are doing in their local Frederick County community, specifically in the lives of their students.
Younger Generation Leadership Network - Plenary Meeting in Berlin, Germany
Understanding that a lack of trust and dialogue between Russia and the West is a significant obstacle to Euro-Atlantic Security, NTI and several partners in 2014 launched a unique capacity-building initiative designed to develop and foster a new generation of leaders equipped to tackle global challenges fueled by historic animosities: The Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security (YGLN).
The network was designed as a trust-building platform to help future generations learn to communicate with one another so that they may avoid making the same mistakes that have plagued previous generations in addressing the region’s security issues.
Today, the YGLN includes 80 young professionals in their 20s and 30s from 27 countries across the Euro-Atlantic community. They come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, and they include specialists in economics, law, public policy, journalism, and business. The YGLN divides its members into four working groups: security, economics, civil society, and rule of law. Each group is tasked with facilitating dialogue on relevant policy issues related to the Euro-Atlantic region. The YGLN does not seek consensus; rather it promotes understanding through a broad exchange of diverse views and opinions.
Source: NTI YGLN
Wogrammer Feature - Discussing my path to nuclear engineering and why I don't like to be called a genius
I recently had a great conversation with Shreya Changanti, Journalism Fellow at Wogrammer, about my technical experiences in physics and nuclear engineering. Wogrammer has a refreshing mission of shifting the public conversation about women in technology from gendered experience to one about personal accomplishments. By publishing stories that focus not on “what’s it’s like to be a woman in tech”, but rather on the details of women’s work and advancements in coding, diagnostics, and software engineering, they aim to elevate the understanding of women’s contributions in the industry.
Wogrammer has interviewed over 200 women across STEM fields, including my dear friend Dr. Joy Johnson. Cofounded by two badass women at Facebook, Erin Summers and Zainab Ghadiyali, they have established a Wogrammer Journalism Fellowship to help storytellers bring these STEM experiences to life, and have been featured in VICE, the National Society of professional Engineers, and the Huffington Post. Learn more about their initiative here.
ESSENCE Magazine Feature - STEM's New Guard
15 Women who are Paving the Way and Paying it Forward
This month I was featured by ESSENCE Magazine alongside 14 phenomenal black women in STEM. On the heels of the blockbuster hit Hidden Figures, it is so encouraging to see iconic publications featuring the stories of technical women of color. This is a tremendous honor, and seeing women I admire and know personally highlighted alongside me is just the icing on the cake. Keep slaying queens! <3
NNSA Graduate Fellow Feature - NNSA Blog
Discussing my experience as an NNSA Fellow working on issues surrounding nuclear weapon modernization and deterrence
The NNSA Graduate Fellowship Program (NGFP) is a unique opportunity for recent graduates to join the Nuclear Security Enterprise. These full-time, salaried positions offer a year of specialized, on-the-job training and the chance to tackle real-world challenges in one of NNSA’s program offices. Fellows develop technical and leadership skills to launch their careers with a full immersion in one of NNSA’s core mission programs.
What is your academic background/training?
I recently completed my PhD in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Before this, I earned my B.S. in physics from Florida A&M University.
What drew you to the NGFP program?
Having spent the last 6 years as an academic, the NGFP program provided me the opportunity to gain practical experience with nuclear security policy-making and implementation. As a technical person, a key draw for me was the opportunity to be trained on the engineering and design decisions of the current stockpile, and understand the actual modernization plans for future systems. This level of training, by people directly involved with the actual weapon systems, is something you cannot access outside of the government.
What are you currently doing for NNSA?
I work in the Office of Major Modernization Programs (NA-19). This office is responsible for the modernization of warhead systems and ensuring access to the strategic materials used in the U.S. stockpile. As an NA-19 fellow, I support the programmatic work in the office. I have contributed to the development of strategic documents, attended meetings with NNSA leadership, and participated in weapon design training courses.
What interests you most about nuclear security?
The interdisciplinary nature of nuclear security is what I find most exciting. Action in this field is influenced not only by technical drivers, but also by cultural and political considerations. This diversity of perspectives from which to view a problem gives me an unbounded opportunity to grow and contribute. This is what I find most interesting about the field.
What has been a highlight of your time with NNSA so far?
A highlight of working in the NNSA has been the people. The NA-19 leadership has been thoughtful about finding the intersection of my professional interests and their mission needs. Within my first few months as a fellow, I was able to attend two Nuclear Weapon Council meetings, and observe first-hand the relationship between the NNSA and the Department of Defense. This opportunity was made possible because my supervisor listened to my interests, and advocated for my participation.
What advice would you give prospective fellows?
Do not be afraid to be your own advocate. Your supervisors cannot tailor the NGFP experience to your interests if they do not know them. Share your goals, and ask them for their help, as a mentor, in achieving them. The best leaders will see your drive, and want to foster it.
Source: NNSA Blog
Young Phenom Feature - ESSENCE Magazine Feature!
Discussing my path to STEM and my experiences as a black woman in nuclear security
November 2017 Issue
This month, my journey in STEM was featured in Essence magazine! Working with Jihan Thompson and the whole Essence staff was a pleasure. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my experience!
Next Chapter - NNSA Graduate Fellowship Program
June 2017 | Washington, D.C.
Two weeks after successfully defending my PhD in nuclear engineering, I moved to DC to start my one-year stint as an NNSA Graduate Fellow (NGFP). The NGFP is administered by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and provides opportunities for graduate students/young professionals to gain hands-on experience and explore careers in nuclear security across the NNSA enterprise. Fellows participate in and learn about a range of nuclear technology and policy areas, while assisting in nuclear and nonproliferation policy and decision-making.
As a technical scientist, my goal is to develop an understanding and appreciation for the nuance of developing and implementing of nuclear security policy. I will circle back in 2018 to update you on my experience.
MARVEL Feature: The Unstoppable Wasp #6!
What kind of work do you do and why?
As a nuclear engineer working in the nuclear security space, my research focuses on technology that could be used to verify future arms control treaties. The U.S. and Russia have a long history of cooperation on reducing the size of their nuclear weapon arsenals, and much of this progress was based on the technical verification possibilities of the time. As a technical scientist, I believe it is important that we continue to provide the policy and political community with an understanding of what is possible in the boundaries of science and technology. As verification of compliance to an arms reduction treaty is often a stumbling block to the success of an agreement, scientists and engineers play a key role in shaping the boundaries of what is possible, and this is why my work is important.
What excites you about your work?
Nuclear security is a field that exists at the intersection of policy, history, science and technology. It is this interdisciplinary nature that keeps my work interesting because the ground is always changing beneath my feet. Whether it is new geopolitical dimensions that emerge, like what is currently happening with U.S.-Russia relations, or new technologies that expand the verification possibilities, the constantly evolving context of my work requires me to be active in my participation. It requires me to be able to think beyond common assumptions or circumstances, and foreshadow the relevancy of my technology in a future world. It is exciting to think that technology I create could have a bearing on reducing, or even eliminating, the nuclear threats we face today. These opportunities for direct impact are the things that make my work exciting.
Why are you passionate about young women getting into science?
One of the things I discovered as an undergrad majoring in physics was that my training was not applicable solely to scientific problems, but I was learning critical thinking skills that would be transferrable to many other complex questions outside of science. This ability to see to the relevance of my training outside of the boundaries of science gave me a confidence in my mind and my logic. This is one of the things I hope for young women entering into STEM, to understand the value of the skills they earn and their agency in what problems they choose to apply those scientific tools and methods to.
I choose to share my experiences as a scientist and engineer because I believe images and narratives matter, and can have a direct impact on how someone conceives of herself. My passion for inclusion comes from the understanding that each community has something of value to offer, and that success in these traditionally male-dominated fields does not have to come at the expense of your womanhood.
What female scientists (real and/or fictional) have inspired you?
Katherine Johnson of NASA – As a black woman who played a key role in the U.S. space race at the height of the Jim Crow era, her bravery and brilliance are a constant source of inspiration to me.
Do you have a favorite example of nonsensical science in popular culture
I’d have to say the science of climate change denial. That is pretty nonsensical to me.
How long have you been reading comics / What was your first comic book?
I first started reading comics as a young child out of the Sunday newspaper, specifically Dilbert, Garfield, and the Boondocks. My first comic book was probably The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
A Year of Completion: Introducing Dr. Robinson Snowden!
May 31, 2017
At the beginning of 2017, my dear friend Joy Johnson gave me a daily planner. In the introduction pages of this planner, it said 2017 would be a year of completion. In the middle of a uniquely challenging time for me in my PhD career, I didn't know how true those words would ring, only five months later. On May 31st, I successfully defended my PhD thesis in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering - becoming the first black woman to do so. I am so grateful to the people who helped me build this vision for myself, and walked with me as I executed it. When I walk across the stage in June 2018 to collect my diploma, it will be in your honor <3 #PHinisheD
MIT Nuclear Engineering Graduate Research Expo
I recently had the opportunity to present my PhD research at the 2017 MIT NSE Grad Expo. My poster, entitled Nuclear Warhead Monitoring: A Study into Passive Detectability, explained my work to understand the accessibility and usefulness of high energy gamma emissions that are generated naturally inside plutonium based warheads. This research seeks to understand how this passive signature could be utilized in future disarmament treaty verification regimes.
VanguardSTEM #WCWinSTEM Feature
February 1, 2017
On Feb 1, I was featured on VanguardSTEM.com as their #WCWinSTEM. #VanguardSTEM is an online movement seeking to highlight the contributions of women of color in STEM. Started by the celebrated astrophysicist Dr. Jedidah Isler, #VanguardSTEM hosts a monthly web series featuring a rotating panel of women of color in STEM discussing a wide variety of topics including their research interests, wisdom, advice, tips, tricks and current events.
Thank you to #VanguardSTEM for featuring me, and for your work highlighting the contributions from our communities!
Disruptive Nuclear Futures Summit
Dec 2016 | Santa Fe, NM
On December 4,2016, I had the privilege of being invited by the N-Square Collaborative to the Disruptive Nuclear Futures Summit in Santa Fe, N.M. The goal of the summit was to convene a diverse set of experts, ranging of security to film and television, around a framing question, "How might we achieve global stability without nuclear weapons by the year 2045?" The goal, as expressed by the organizers (Creative Santa Fe, NSquare Collaborative, The Nuclear Threat Initiative, and PopTech), was to create a space tgar encouraged innovative dialogue - across sectors - around this question. Over the course of three days, we were immersed in the history of nuclear weapons, discussed present day nuclear threats and explored ‘what if’ scenarios about the future of global security.
There were a number of very interesting aspects of the summit: a fireside chat between Eric Schlosser (investigative journalist and author of Command & Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damacus Accident and the Illusion of Safety) and Former Secretary of Defense William J Perry where they discussed the numerous nuclear threats facing the global community, and how to organize ones thoughts/intentions with respect to nuclear disarmament; a lecture by former Ambassador Robert Galluci where he discussed the intricacies of deterrence and how it differs from defense; workshops on the art and science of storytelling and how it could be leveraged in the nuclear security space, among many others.
In addition to learning more about my field, I left the experience with a greater appreciation for how other fields, particularly television, media and brand strategy could help to craft a new narrative around nuclear security. At the intersection of security and these fields lay the opportunity to reposition the discussion about global security, nuclear threats and disarmament from its isolated elite station to one that is accessible and relevant to everyday people.
All things nuclear
This video, starring PhD candidates Leigh Ann Kesler and Brandon Sorbom, provides an inside view of my everyday surroundings on Albany Street. It's amazing to think about all the expertise and breakthroughs that have happen on this single street, let alone the entire campus. As Shonda Rhimes often says, this is rare air. I am grateful to be able to contribute to, and marvel at it up close, every day.
Presented Research at the 2016 Stockpile Stewardship Graduate Fellowship Program Review
This past summer I presented my research at the 2016 DOE NNSA SSGF Program Review. This fellowship has generously supported my graduate research since 2012, and provided me with a supportive network inside academia and the national labs. As an exiting fellow, I presented my research into nuclear warhead monitoring for future nuclear disarmament agreements. I received a number of thoughtful policy and technical questions about my work during the Q&A, which I was pleased with. I want to thank the DOE NNSA SSGF for supporting and encouraging me these past 4 years, and I hope to continue to be involved with the fellowship moving forward.
2016 Stockpile Stewardship Essay Slam Winner
This summer, my essay entitled "Dark Room, Bright Ideas" was published in the Stewardship Science, the annual DOE NNSA SSGF magazine. In it, I wrote about my best and worst day in science. To read my essay, visit the DOE NNSA SSGF website here.
Consortium on Verification Technology - Inaugural Workshop
On December 10-11, 2015, I participated in the first workshop of the Consortium on Verification Technology, hosted by the Nuclear Futures Laboratory at Princeton University.
"This workshop is the first of a series of topical workshops held to support the work of the Consortium for Verification Technology (CVT), a five-year effort funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Organized by the investigator team leading the Policy Research Thrust, the workshop was primarily aimed at identifying and understanding qualitatively new verification challenges that will emerge with future arms-control agreements such as a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) or next-generation bilateral or multilateral nuclear disarmament treaties, which may place limits on the total number of nuclear warheads. Rather than focusing on particular technologies or instruments, the goal was to identify “big-picture” gaps and challenges and novel approaches to guide verification R&D and frame requirements for possible technical tools and policy trade-offs." - Nuclear Verification at Low Numbers | A Scoping Workshop
What Now? The Iran Nuclear Deal
Sept. 21, 2015 | MIT Global Zero
On September 21, 2015, the MIT Chapter of Global Zero, along with Radius, the Iranian Studies Group and the MIT Center for International Studies hosted a panel on the EU3+3/Iran nuclear agreement. This agreement marks a significant milestone in bringing Iran's nuclear program into compliance with their safeguards requirements under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The panel of experts leading the discussion included Professor R. Scott Kemp from the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering Department; Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund, Co- Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program; Dr. Payam Mohseni, Director of the Iran Project at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; and Dr. John Tirman, Executive Director of the MIT Center for International Studies.
The discussion focused on the technical strengths and weakness of the nuclear deal, how this deal is perceived within the Iranian nation, and the impact of this deal on the Middle Eastern region and the international security strategies of the P5+1 and Iran moving forward. With over 80+ members of the MIT community in attendance, panelists answered a wide range of questions, from the inspection regime underlying the agreement, to the role of President Rohani's election on the success of the negotiation, to the potential impact of the U.S. presidential election on the longevity of the deal.
Summer Symposium on Science and World Affairs
Hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists
Funded in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, the International Summer Symposium on Science and World Affairs encourages the development of young security analysts, researchers, and policy makers.
Since the first meeting in 1989, the symposium has hosted over 500 scientists and researchers in China, Russia, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere. The symposium aims to encourage and cultivate young scientists working on international security issues, and to expand and diversify the international arms control community. Past symposiums led to the establishment of the first independent arms control research center in Russia; the first program on peace research and education in Pakistan; and the first university-based security and arms control studies program in China.
Presentation Title: "Verifying Warhead Confirmation for Future Warhead Dismantlement Treaties"
2015 DOE NNSA Stockpile Stewardship Graduate Fellowship Conference
[left] 2015 SSGF Fellows in Washington, D.C.
[right] Presenting my poster at the 2015 DOE NNSA SSGF Program Review to SSGF fellows and scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Poster entitled Passive Template-based Measurement of High Explosives for Future Warhead Dismantlement Verification Regime
2015 MIT Graduate Women of Excellence Celebration
In Spring 2015, Mareena Robinson Snowden was honored as an MIT Graduate Woman of Excellence. The honorees were nominated and selected based on their leadership and service contributions at the Institute, their dedication to mentoring and their drive to make changes to improve the student experience at MIT.
2015 Rising Stars in Nuclear Science and Engineering
Written by Mareena Robinson Snowden & Brittany Goods
On April 15, 2015, the 2nd biennial Rising Stars in Nuclear Science and Engineering Symposium continued a conversation about two important topics: the multidisciplinary nature of the field, and the work that still needs to be done to increase the representation of women in the discipline. "Rising Stars in Nuclear Science and Engineering addresses one of the biggest challenges in our field,” says Professor Richard Lester, Head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. “One of the most important things we can do is to encourage outstanding women scientists and engineers to enter and to remain in our field. Rising Stars contributes to that goal. It provides an opportunity to celebrate the research accomplishments of a new generation of women doctoral and post-doctoral researchers, and to create new professional networks that will support the progress of these outstanding young women throughout their careers."
The symposium was planned by NSE Professors Paola Cappellaro, Anne White and Bilge Yildiz, and featured female graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, scientists and professors from across the United States. The day centered around research talks given by the attendees, with topics ranging from material science to radiation detection, reactor physics, and high performance computing. Nina Lanza, a research scientist from Los Alamos National Laboratory currently working on the Curiosity Rover mission on Mars, brought a unique research perspective based on her experiences working in a large multidisciplinary team. Her research focuses on the elemental analysis of Martian rock and soil performed using ChemCam, an instrument that combines laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy with a high-resolution camera. Preliminary results at the rover’s landing site shows evidence of past habitability on Mars.
Lakshana Huddar, a doctoral candidate from University of California, Berkeley presented her research on heat transfer in pebble bed nuclear reactor cores cooled by fluoride salt. Huddar explained her approach of using a scaled laboratory experiment based on simulant oils that match key non-dimensional parameters expected in the pebble bed reactors to estimate the heat transfer coefficient between the coolant and the pebble fuel. This research is necessary to accurately predict fuel temperatures in this advanced reactor core.
A subgroup of presenters focused on particle simulation techniques. Pi-En Tsai, a doctoral candidate from the University of Tennessee, introduced her experimental measurements and simulations of secondary neutrons from high-energy helium ion interactions with a variety of stopping materials. Using the Heavy Ion Medical Accelerator facility at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba, Japan, Tsai determined the neutron energy spectra. She used particle transport codes to reproduce the experiments in simulation; improvements in the simulation fidelity of these experiments will help in predicting the energy spectra of these secondary neutrons.
The Rising Star audience was made up of students, faculty and staff from across the Nuclear Science and Engineering Department and the MIT community at large, as well as the Rising Stars group itself. This broad composition made for very exciting and penetrating Q&A sessions. Audience members drew on their own expertise when exposed to new research topics, which was illustrated by the detailed transport simulation discussions between detector designers, reactor physicists, and material scientists. “What really stood out for me was the breadth of research that's related to nuclear science and engineering,” said Prof. White. "This amazing group of young scientists exemplifies the multidisciplinary nature of nuclear science and engineering.”
Angela Belcher, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy and a faculty member in Materials Science and Biological Engineering, was the keynote speaker for the symposium. Prof. Belcher opened her talk by handing out tiny cards of the periodic table that remind the recipients that they’re in their element. This set the stage for her talk, which highlighted projects throughout her career that grew out of her interest in chemistry and materials, ranging from her first bacteriophage-based battery to new projects focused on a novel platform for cancer imaging.
Prof. Belcher, who seamlessly wove career and life-balance advice into her talk, responded to a question saying, “there’s no balancing...it really is stopping one thing and doing something else...for me, my kids always come first.” When discussing managing her roles as a faculty member, research advisor, entrepreneur and mother she added, “I think the great thing about this job is that you can have it all, but not all at one time.” She also elaborated on the importance of childcare and a good support network for mothers in professional settings.
Many symposium participants appreciated the honesty and practical advice. Later one of the participants, Dr. Kasturi Saha, reflected that “events like these bring up a lot of things which you wouldn’t normally discuss, things that you are faced with on a day-to-day basis but you do not want to talk about a lot of the time.”
During a panel session on “Work-Life Balance — How to Thrive as a Junior Professor,” attendees asked questions about the path to becoming a professor and the increased duration of post-doctoral positions. When asked how to find a faculty position Prof. Yildiz responded, “do what you’re motivate to do, it’s a natural progression.” Other topics during the panel session included the importance of mentorship, networking, communication, and negotiation during the hiring process.
At the end of the day NSE PhD student Mareena Robinson-Snowden commented, “The quality of this symposium is top par...we’re all getting to know each other and I’m very appreciative of these types of events. I just wish they didn’t have to be only every two years.”
Source: MIT NSE
In March 2015, Mareena Robinson Snowden was featured in the publication Stewardship Science Academic Program Annual
An unexpected path to nuclear engineering
With ample family support, PhD student Mareena Robinson focuses on research in nuclear security.
Zach Wener-Fligner | MIT News correspondent
June 18, 2014
When she was accepted into the undergraduate business program at Florida A&M University (FAMU), Mareena Robinson thought she had her future all figured out: She would go to law school and become an attorney, like her father, or else a businesswoman.
But when she and her father arrived on campus at the beginning of freshman year, he made an offer the self-described “obedient daughter” couldn’t refuse: to pay a visit to the physics department, where he had a distant connection to a friend-of-a-friend.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll just check it out,’” Robinson says. “I had no intention of going into physics. But when I got up there they treated me like a football player.”
She was surprised — after all, the department didn’t know anything about her, and had no idea whether she could cut it as a physics major. “They were so excited about anybody who was even willing to talk about the possibility of doing science because it is a select few people who have the audacity to try something like that,” she says.
Her father was sold on the program, telling her: “Mareena, I don’t know anything about this physics stuff. I can’t do one equation. But I feel like this is the wave of the future and I just need you to try it. And if you hate it or you can’t do it, you can be a theater major for all I care. But just give it a shot.”
“I said, ‘What’s the problem? I’ll try it for a year, and if I hate it, I’ll switch.’ And then I looked up and I was a junior,” Robinson says.
Now a fourth-year PhD student in nuclear science and engineering at MIT, Robinson researches warhead confirmation, a crucial technological hurdle to international disarmament. Currently, most nuclear arms-control agreements, such as the 2010 New START treaty between Russia and the United States, focus on decreasing the number of deployed nuclear weapons: weapons that are physically mounted on missile launchers. The problem with such treaties is that they don’t address the actual decommissioning of the weapons.
The primary issue is one of verification: If the United States claims to have dismantled a weapon, how can it prove this to Russia without giving Russian inspectors access to a weapon that might reveal key technological secrets? Or, as Robinson asks, “How do we verify that a country is indeed complying to a future dismantlement regime?”
Robinson’s research aims to solve this problem by developing a passive detection system that could be used to detect the presence of nuclear warheads via their radioactive signatures. If successful, such work could significantly influence policy: It could enable nuclear treaties that actually decrease the total number of warheads, not just those that are mounted on launchers. Robinson was recognized in 2011 with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s prestigious Stewardship Science Graduate Fellowship, which funds her graduate work.
Robinson’s academic success is as much a product of humility, hard work, and family support as it is of genius.
Robinson and her two sisters were raised by their father; her parents divorced when she was 4. “He was not one for the pity party,” she says. “‘You fall off your bike? Get back up.’ So that’s kind of been my philosophy in life. I can change a mean tire. I can mow a lawn. I can lift a box. I don’t need help carrying groceries. I can actually use a jackhammer, too.”
Education had always been emphasized in Robinson’s family: Her grandmother alone had four uncles from South Carolina who received their PhDs in the 1930s. Robinson draws on those experiences for inspiration. “I’ve thought to myself, ‘I’m doing this in 2014. It’s nothing compared to what they were doing,’” she says. “They couldn’t drink at the water fountain, but they were getting their PhDs.”
Still, if it weren’t for her family’s support, Robinson might not have taken the same path. During her freshman year in high school, she was accepted into the Maritime and Science Technology (MAST) Academy, a top-ranked college-preparatory magnet school in Miami. Yet despite the opportunity, she didn’t want to attend.
“At my home institution I was running track, I had a boyfriend, I was loving it,” she says. “So I put up a very strong resistance.” Robinson recalls that her grandmother literally got down on her knees, begging her, “Please, baby, just go.”
“You can’t say no to your grandma,” Robinson says. “So there I was going to MAST Academy,” leaving the house at 5 a.m. and catching two buses and a train just to get to class.
An MIT revelation
In the undergraduate physics program at FAMU, Robinson worked hard and received good grades, but at times was still afflicted by academic self-doubt. Graduate school at MIT wasn’t even on her radar. “I was under the impression that if you didn’t dream about it when you were 5, if it wasn’t in your DNA, maybe it wasn’t for you,” she says. “But no! You can learn. You don’t know what’s in you until you try.”
Everything changed during the summer after her sophomore year. At the urging of one of her peers, Robinson applied for a summer research internship at MIT. “You don’t know me,” she told him at the time. “You haven’t seen my grades. I don’t know if I’m MIT-worthy.”
Then she was accepted. “You could have thought I got into the grad program, I was so excited. My whole family was so excited,” she says.
That summer brought a sort of academic revelation. “I came here, I competed, I worked, I was put under the fire, nobody told me, ‘Oh, you’re not cut out for this,’” Robinson says. “When I left here I had a confidence that nobody could dispute.”
During that summer, Robinson made a decision: She was going to graduate school, and she was going to MIT.
Paying it forward
Now that she’s at the Institute, Robinson works voraciously to provide others the same communal support from which she’s benefitted. She is co-president of the Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers, a group that serves, in her words, “to provide a community and a safe space to voice goals, grievances, and just feel supported.” The group holds weekly “accountability meetings” that are “just like seeing your family,” Robinson says. “Everyone gets together and you get to check up on people.”
She also works with an organization called Grad Catalyst that steers underrepresented minorities into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Members of Grad Catalyst visit other institutions to hold seminars on graduate school — from what internships to apply for to how to manage relations with a PhD advisor. “There are all these little nuance things that people may not tell you, but if somebody did tell you, you’re automatically at an advantage,” Robinson says.
Indeed, Robinson’s devotion to community-building comes from the belief that her own success is a product of the support that she’s received. “I can’t wait for the day to graduate and just walk across the stage,” she says. “That’s going to be huge, because I’m going to be walking with everybody with me. My great-grandmother. My grandmother. My grandfather. My father, who had no idea about a physics equation. So that’s really powerful.”
Source: MIT News
The Iran nuclear deadline
A ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION ON IRANIAN NEGOTIATIONS DELVES INTO POTENTIAL OUTCOMES AND IMPLICATIONS.
Written by Mareena Robinson Snowden
Photos courtesy of Chris Sherrill
On November 19, 2014, the MIT chapter of Global Zero and Radius hosted a roundtable discussion on the status of negotiations between Iran and the E3+3 (The United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, and Germany) about Iran’s nuclear program. The discussion covered the history of the diplomatic process, the forces influencing current negotiations, and likelihood and implications of a successful agreement.
Dr. R. Scott Kemp, an assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) at MIT, led the discussion. Before joining the faculty, Kemp served as Science Advisor in the State Department’s Office of the Special Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, where Iran was his primary responsibility. He has continued to participate in the track-II talks since leaving government service.
Prof. Kemp brought a mix of technical and political insights to the discussion, covering many intricacies of the diplomatic constraints. The event opened with Kemp setting the stage for the current negotiations, beginning with the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani and the appointment of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as Iran’s chief negotiator. Kemp asserted that this change in leadership marked a political shift that opened up the possibility of engagement that was not possible with the previous Iranian administration. On November 24, 2013, the new leadership agreed to a Joint Plan of Action that froze escalatory actions on both sides. After an extension in July, the 1-year anniversary and putative deadline for an agreement is now just days away.
Kemp said it was very unlikely that a final agreement would be reached by the November 24 deadline. “I’m sorry to say, but there is virtually no chance that a final deal will happen by Monday”, Kemp said, “but that’s not as bad as it sounds.” It is still possible, he added, that negotiators might achieve agreement on a framework for the broad outlines of a deal. Kemp said the element of brinkmanship pushes important decisions to the deadline. He reported that the November 9–10 meeting between Foreign Minister Zarif, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and EU envoy Catherine Aston was unproductive beyond reaffirming that all sides continue to believe that a deal is in the best interest of all parties and that an extension of some sort seemed likely.
Kemp identified three primary issues that remain unresolved: the size of Iranian stockpiles of enriched uranium, the duration of the period for which Iran would accept restraints and special inspection provisions, and the number of centrifuges Iran would operate during that period. Based on his expertise in enrichment technology, Kemp explained the tradeoffs between these parameters. The mission of the E3+3 negotiators is to lengthen Iran’s nuclear ‘breakout’ time to something like 12 months by reducing the number of centrifuges in operation and the stockpile of enriched uranium in Iran’s possession. Iran, by contrast, argues that it needs to retain a significant capability because of their future civil energy plans and face-saving considerations. Based on personal conversations with Foreign Minister Zarif, however, Kemp articulated reasons why he does not believe these claims. Instead, he believes Iran views its nuclear program as having strategic value, and would simply like to retain as much of that strategic capability as possible.
Aron Bernstein, a professor in the MIT Physics Department and faculty advisor for MIT’s Global Zero, echoed Kemp’s view, arguing that Iran’s enrichment capabilities serve as a “virtual nuclear weapon”, giving the Iranian leadership the option to arm themselves in the future. In addition to this, Kemp explained that nuclear capabilities, whether for civilian or military purposes, are an intense source of pride for the Iranian public, making it difficult for the leadership to relinquish these capabilities while preserving their dignity.
Many other issues were discussed during the 90-minute roundtable, including the response of Saudi Arabia to a successful deal between Iran and the West, and how a final agreement would impact the strategic calculus for Israel. While nobody in the room was confident in predictions about the future, participants did agree that a successful deal would be a productive step towards lowering the tension between Tehran and the West. Kemp articulated a large agenda of foreign-policy items for which a warming of relations with Iran would be useful, including the problems of ISIS and Middle East stability.
Mareena Robinson-Snowden, the president of the MIT chapter of Global Zero and a fourth year doctoral candidate in the NSE department, described the event as “an opportunity to explore the various issues influencing the success of this deal, and provide people with a forum to discuss the meaning and impact of this event at the ground level.The entire world is awaiting the outcome of these negotiations, and will be actively listening to the decisions announced on the morning of November 25th.”
The MIT Chapter of Global Zero believes that nuclear weapons should have no place in the international community. We believe progress can be made in changing the inclination toward military nuclear capabilities. This progress will only come from honest and informed conversations. MIT GZ seeks to provide a forum for discussion about the requirements to achieving complete and sustained disarmaments on the international level.
Located at MIT in Cambridge, MA, our mission is to tap into the local brain-trust at MIT and the surrounding institutions. Bringing together interested students, faculty and staff, we aim to debunk myths, reveal truths and foster new understanding about the complexities to achieving 'zero', in hopes of breeding a generation that believes in its potential and to produce tangible steps towards 'zero'. Mareena Robinson Snowden served as the president of the MIT chapter from 2014-2016.
Speakers at middle school program orientation overcame barriers to study science and engineering
Public middle school students from Boston, Cambridge and Lawrence, their families, and undergraduate mentors attended orientation for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Mentoring Program at MIT on October 18. As part of the orientation, three keynote speakers from MIT and Harvard shared experiences that led them to study and seek careers in science and engineering.
Mentors changing minds
Danielle Olson, a recent graduate of MIT in computer science and engineering, gave the first talk. She said that despite her love of science growing up, she couldn’t picture herself as a scientist because of prevailing gender stereotypes. When she was introduced to a mentor through a program offered by her high school, the picture she had of a scientist suddenly changed. “My [original] idea of a scientist was not an outgoing, creative, black female; my idea of a scientist was Bill Nye,” said Olson. “My mentor looked nothing like my idea of a scientist. It was because of this that I changed my major from journalism to science.”
After rejecting preconceived ideas about the kind of career she could have, something different called to Olson. She urged the middle school students in the audience to take a closer look at what their futures could look like if they reject stereotypes and obstacles. Olson left the students with one assignment: “I challenge you to use what you have to do what you can. The master has failed more times than the novice has even tried.”
The next speaker at the orientation was David Boone, a Harvard junior who founded his university’s Undergraduate Robotics Club and completed an internship at Microsoft. Like Olson, it never occurred to Boone to study science and engineering as a high school student despite having a deep interest in those fields. Instead, he expected to pursue law or medicine. “Growing up smart in Cleveland, you either become a doctor or a lawyer,” said Boone. “No one ever thought to tell me, David you’re smart, why don’t you become an engineer?”
Feeling a lack of challenge at his high school, he applied and was accepted to the Minority Introduction to Science and Engineering (MITES) program at MIT. Boone’s experience during MITES changed his perception of success and opened him up to a new way of thinking about his own future. “For the first time, I was surrounded by students just as excited about engineering as me with very similar backgrounds.”
Now, Boone lives his life in a way that reflects his ideals and allows him to be a role model for his family. “My siblings look up at me for inspiration,” he said. “I can’t get too content, I have to stay hungry.”
Mareena Robinson-Snowden was the last to speak, sharing the story of her career path, which took several turns and detours prior to her current position as a doctoral candidate in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. She talked about the importance of not letting fear prevent students from reaching their goals. In high school, Robinson-Snowden feared that she wasn’t capable of understanding math concepts like her peers. “My fear was paralyzing,” she said. “It kept me from learning. I had established a belief about myself, and once you establish that belief, your mind looks for evidence to color that belief.”
Robinson-Snowden stressed that students passionate about science and engineering should not become disheartened about the subjects they study, and that they should never give up on challenges because of fear. Today, she has overcome her own fears and serves as co-president of the Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers.
STEM Program Academic Advisor Catherine Park closed the orientation by thanking the speakers, middle school students, families and mentors, and provided some context on why the program is important. “Middle school can be tough sometimes, and the transition to high school can be even tougher,” said Park, “That’s why we match our students with people who went through it all in the not so distant past."
Source: MIT OEOP News
Speakers at MIT’s 40th annual MLK Breakfast honor King’s legacy
The struggle against racism is far from over, speakers say, but the issues have become subtler.
David L. Chandler, MIT News Office
February 7, 2014
As the MIT community gathered for the 40th annual breakfast celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., speakers reflected on how much the nation has progressed toward his dream of inclusiveness over those decades — as well as on the need to keep working toward that vision, despite the fact that signs of racism in society have become less obvious.
Graduate student Mareena Robinson, who is pursuing a doctorate in nuclear science and engineering, spoke on King’s leadership during the early days of the civil rights movement. “Unlike race relations today, where prejudice and discrimination is subtle and often denied by the ones who perpetrate it, the discrimination of that time was undeniable, inescapable, and not to be apologized for,” she said.
Robinson added, “It is true and must be acknowledged that much progress has been made … with the election and re-election of our first African-American president, who stands as a symbol of America’s ability to look beyond race and judge a man by the quality of his ideas and the content of his character.”
“While I can celebrate these things, I cannot be content,” Robinson said. “I am frustrated with the slow pace of progress. … As Dr. King showed us through his life, in order to make progress out of the darkness of hate and frustration, love must be more than a circumstantial emotion. It must be a constant state of being that filters our thoughts and regulates our actions.”
Margo Batie, a senior majoring in physics and nuclear science and engineering, recalled her own progression from an inner-city high school in Los Angeles — a school with a 51 percent dropout rate — to the daunting challenges of MIT. “I don’t want to come here and have the one fact that distinguishes me from everyone else on this campus to be my inner-city upbringing,” she said. “I also don’t want to go home and be deemed the ‘one who made it out.’”
Batie said, “I’m not an anomaly in both worlds and I shouldn’t be one in either world. I’m a person who made personal choices and has personal interests, and these are the things that have shaped me to become who I am today. I’m owed the opportunity to embrace these things, and embrace these interests while pursuing a degree at a top institution.”
“I don’t want to be this great black nuclear engineer, or that great female physicist,” Batie added. “I want to be that great nuclear engineer who is black, and who is female.”
“Dr. King once said, ‘We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now,’” Batie said. “I want my differences to be celebrated, and not swept under the rug.”
The battle for the ballot
“We have not yet arrived at the postracial future,” sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, a University Professor at Georgetown University, said in his keynote address. Dyson recalled King’s early speeches — given long before the ones that made him famous worldwide.
“He said, ‘Give us the ballot,’” Dyson said. And indeed, he added, “The ballot box became the means by which a profound transformation of America was registered.”
At the same time, Dyson said, “We now see that same ballot box used to undermine and challenge,” such as through laws that discriminate against gays or that impose drastically different penalties for drugs more prevalent in minority communities.
The recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, for example, pointed to a discrepancy, Dyson said: “When it comes to people of color,” he said, drug use “is often seen as a defect of character.”
MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who introduced Dyson, spoke about today’s “quieter and less obvious” forms of discrimination. He cited a recent article by an Asian American computer scientist, an MIT alumnus, who talked about the stereotypes — in his case, mostly positive ones — that are still pervasive in our society.
This kind of subtle stereotyping, Reif said, is “in some ways harder to stop. … We have not yet created a society without stereotypes. We have not yet reached a place where people are judged only by the content of their character, or only by the quality of their code.”
The annual breakfast also featured music by the MIT Gospel Choir and by the choral group Tribute, and honored recipients of the Institute’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards and the MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars — participants in a program that has brought more than 100 visiting professors to MIT, Provost Martin Schmidt said, including 11 who are presently on campus.
This year, marking the MLK Breakfast’s 40th year, a special Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Wesley Harris, the Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Source: MIT News
2014 DOE NNSA Stockpile Stewardship Graduate Fellowship Conference
The annual Fellows' Poster Session affords attendees a unique opportunity to learn more about the research being supported by the DOE NNA SSGF program. Each fellow is provided space to present his or her latest finding, and prizes are awarded to those who engage in the best visual and oral presentation.
In 2014, Mareena Robinson Snowden won Best Overall Poster for her effective oral and visual presentation of her research on pulse shape discrimination characteristics in 10Boron-loaded plastic scintillators (abstract below):
Evaluation of Pulse Shape Discrimination Characteristics in 10Boron-Loaded Plastic Scintillators
Neutrons provide very specific signatures for the presence of fissile material. Unfortunately, these signatures are often at low intensity and compete with large gamma backgrounds. To separate these signatures from the background, pulse shape discrimination (PSD) is used. Liquid scintillator is the most commonly used PSD medium because of its reliability and lack of realistic alternatives at large sizes. PSD-capable plastic scintillators offer an attractive alternative, potentially achieving the size and performance of liquids while avoiding issues such as toxicity, flammability, and spillage that are inherent in the use of liquid PSD scintillators. This work focuses on the optimization of the plastic composition for PSD applications, specifically looking at the use of Boron-loaded plastic scintillators with the ability to distinguish between gammas, thermal and fast neutrons.
2013 DOE NNSA Stockpile Stewardship Graduate Fellowship Conference
Santa Fe, NM
In 2013, Mareena Robinson won the Novice Poster award, which is given to the most effective poster presentation by a first year DOE NNSA SSGF fellow.
Investigation of CVD‐Diamond Detectors for Neutron Radiation Monitoring
Neutron detection is a fundamental component of nuclear reactor power monitoring. Paramount in this component is a detector’s ability to perform in harsh environments. The ideal detector would be radiation- and temperature-resistant for reliable performance near a reactor core, compact for easy positioning, and have a sensitivity to both thermal and fast neutrons. Chemical vapor deposition (CVD)‐diamond detectors offer these desired qualities: wide temperature range (5.5‐eV band gap), radiation hard (intrinsic material hardness), fast response time (high mobility of charge carriers), compact volume (microelectronic fabrication), low inherent noise (high reaction Q‐value), and low operating voltage.
The purpose of this research is to explore the use of CVD-diamond detectors for in‐core reactor experiment monitoring at Idaho National Laboratory’s Advanced Test Reactor (ATR). Neutron efficiency measurements are presented as a preliminary step toward understanding the performance of these detectors.
Awarded the DOE NNSA Stockpile Stewardship Graduate Fellowship!
In April 2012, Mareena Robinson was one of five students awarded the prestigious Stewardship Science Graduate Fellowship (SSGF), which is sponsored by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Robinson is a first year doctoral student in the department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, with a focus on nuclear security. This fellowship program provides four-years of outstanding benefits and opportunities to students pursuing a Ph.D. in areas of interest to stewardship science.
“The holistic focus on developing students into skilled and insightful researchers in the area of stewardship science is what initially intrigued me about this fellowship.” said Robinson. “My goal in my graduate and broader professional career is to continue to advance my technical and political intuition through diverse experiences. I firmly believe that diversity of experiences and backgrounds is essential to the development of the next wave of innovative nuclear security solutions. I am excited to contribute my perspective on prevalent issues regarding nuclear security and to be exposed to other perspectives through my interaction with the fellowship.”
Robinson’s research currently focuses on the detection and measurement of radiopharmaceuticals, specifically N-13 ammonia, which is used as a tracer in Positron Emission Tomography. Using a compact high-field superconducting cyclotron, N-13 ammonia will be produced through high-energy proton collisions with O-16. Robinson’s role in the research is to develop a flow-through detection system that measures the amount and activity of the N-13 ammonia produced by this system. This research, once complete, will have immediate applications to the medical industry.
Robinson graduated with a B.S. in Physics from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, FL, in 2011.