Trailblazer in nuclear engineering reveals her unusual career path

3 Jul 2020

Ciara Sivels is based at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Image: Johns Hopkins University APL

While many aspects of her work are a US state secret, Ciara Sivels is currently blazing a trail for women and people of colour in nuclear engineering.

What do pastry making and nuclear engineering have in common? Not a lot, on the face of it, but for Ciara Sivels they are two points on perhaps one of the unlikeliest of career journeys.

A native of the US state of Virginia, Sivels was just 27 in 2018 when she made history by becoming the first black woman to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan, one of the most highly regarded schools in the US for the exciting field.

This was for her development of a breakthrough detector of radioactive particles, specifically radioxenon, that are associated with the detonation of nuclear weapons. So, all-in-all, some pretty exciting stuff.

However, speaking with, Sivels said that when she was growing up, weapons of mass destruction and the science behind them were the last thing on her mind.

In fact, her original dream was to become a pastry chef; that was until she discovered the world of chemistry. Noting her good grades in middle school, her teacher at the time suggested that she should consider pursuing chemical engineering when she went off to college.

After submitting a number of applications to universities, she was eventually accepted to MIT for what seemed to be a future in everything chemicals. And yet, on a visit to the prestigious university’s campus, she was encouraged to switch her major after a conversation with her guide, who was then studying chemical engineering.

Being a role model

“I was explaining to her that I’m interested in this, that and the other,” Sivels said. “She said, ‘I don’t think chemical engineering is for you, you sound like you’re more interested in things on a smaller scale.’”

After taking a catch-up class on physics that summer, Sivels was soon immersed in all things nuclear and went on to do an internship at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Here, she worked on experiments and studies that led to her breakthrough radioxenon device to help bolster activities under the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

As she said in an interview with MIT News, her device allowed for a “plug and play” model that could be integrated at nuclear detonation detection stations that run 24/7.

Given her unusual route to becoming a nuclear engineer, it raises the question of what power a role model – someone who she could have looked up to in this industry – could have had on her early life? According to Sivels, it’s not like nuclear physics and engineering is a new concept, but it is still something that is “very small and very select”.

“There’s not a lot of institutions that have nuclear engineer programmes and they’re very competitive to get into,” she said.

“You just don’t find a lot of people of colour in these programmes and that discourages people from doing it. That’s one of the reasons why I’m really passionate about the ‘If Then’ project, because that ambassador programme is trying to combat the stereotype that STEM looks one way and they’re really trying to change the narrative.”

‘A lot of people are sharing their stories’

With racial discrimination and systematic bias now heavily under the spotlight, Sivels said that its effects have been felt within academic circles as well. One example on social media that gained particular attention was #BlackintheIvory, which saw thousands of people of colour in academia tell their own stories of discrimination.

“If you look at retention rates and things like that, there’s a lot of capable black people getting into engineering programmes and not staying because of the systematic issues or the racial biases that they’re incurring or the feelings of isolation,” Sivels said.

“A lot of people are sharing their stories and speaking about the different issues that they’ve had in their department because a lot of this upcoming school year is going to be different for a lot of universities.”

Ciara Sivels smiling while having her PhD graduation stole put on her.

Ciara Sivels after graduating with her PhD from the University of Michigan. Image: Joseph Xu/University of Michigan

Having recently made the move to Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Sivels admitted that despite her own achievements, she struggles with the idea of being a role model and is “not one to brag”. Yet, for her it’s something she has learned can be incredibly powerful.

“I want people to see that just because you look a certain way and have a certain gender, I can bring different ideas to the table and make impacts in the same way that someone else who doesn’t look like me can,” she said.

“I wanted to open the door for other black women, black girls coming behind me, to say you can do to this too if it’s what you’re passionate about.”

Nuclear detection tech

But don’t expect Sivels to tell you too much about her current work on US national security, as much of it is shrouded in secrecy given its immense implications on the international stage. However, she can say that she is researching how radiation impacts and changes the composition of materials and how this can be applied to radiation detection.

This could range from analysing a Fukushima-like event to nuclear weapon stockpile verification. But how has the technology changed from the early days of the Cold War when aircraft were sent up with special filters designed to catch radioactive particles high above the clouds?

According to Sivels, nuclear detection has “advanced substantially” since then.

“You don’t have to have these big devices anymore. You can have systems that fit in your backpack and they also have very high sensitivity,” she said.

“That’s one of the things that was really important for my thesis work. Another place where detectors have really advanced is the material where crystalline structures are being developed by people with materials backgrounds to be tested as radiation detectors.”

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic