No one could be more astonished to find Ciara Sivels ’13 where she is today than Ciara Sivels herself. “Never in a million years would I have predicted that I’d be working as a nuclear engineer in a major research laboratory,” says Sivels. “My original dream was to be a pastry chef.”
Instead, Sivels, who grew up in rural Virginia, went to MIT and majored in nuclear science and engineering with a focus on nuclear nonproliferation, and a concentration in middle school education. She then earned a PhD from the University of Michigan in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, where she was the first African-American woman to graduate from this program.
Today, Sivels is on staff at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), engaged in projects related to national security. While details about her research remain classified, Sivels can reveal that she works on radiation transport simulations focusing on materials effects: “In lay terms, I look at how radiation interacts with and changes the properties of various types of materials.”
Sivels’ expertise in this area evolved during her graduate study and national security internships at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where she helped develop a unique detection system for radioxenon, a gas linked to explosions from nuclear weapons testing.
Although she must maintain a shroud of secrecy around her current work life, Sivels readily shares details of the remarkable journey she has traveled from her home in Hickory, Virginia, to a prestigious national defense lab. It has been a trek marked by some lucky breaks, hard-won battles, a fascination for problem solving, and an abiding passion to give back to others.
Not the engineering type
“I didn’t have a traditional engineering past,” says Sivels. “I wasn’t interested in tinkering or building things, and I was all over the place in high school, doing things like culinary arts and church-related activities like praise dancing.”
No academic subjects resonated with Sivels until she tried chemistry. Her teacher, taking note of both her engagement and good grades, suggested she think about chemical engineering in college. “I was making a list of schools all related to culinary careers, and he was telling me to think about much better colleges, places I’d never heard about.”
With her chemistry teacher’s help, she applied to several, including MIT. Unfamiliar with the admissions process, she missed learning about her acceptance on Pi Day. “I assumed I was going to Virginia Commonwealth University when one of my classmates told me to check my email,” she recalls.
Sivels was sold on MIT after Campus Preview Weekend. “I thought it would be a great experience to attend a university far away from home,” she says. She also decided to shift her major that weekend, after learning that chemical engineering involved “polymers and plastics and manufacturing things,” which didn’t appeal to Sivels. “My weekend host thought nuclear engineering might be a better match for my interests, and I thought the field seemed really interesting, so I decided to major in it.”
Before Sivels officially started, she completed MIT’s Interphase EDGE program, a summer school that helps admitted students fill academic gaps prior to their first year. “I had previously taken physics, but Interphase made me realize I didn’t know what vectors were, and I wasn’t up to speed on math,” she says. “I struggled, but the program was pivotal for me, because it helped me assimilate to the academics faster than I would have, and introduced me to a new group of friends.”
Sivels’ academic challenges were not over, though. “Growing up, learning had come naturally to me, but at MIT, things were really hard for the first time — I felt I might even fail a class,” says Sivels. “It wasn’t until junior year, after learning new study skills, and thinking beyond cookie-cutter solutions, that I could take the tools I was given and really figure out how to solve problems.” Says Sivels, “MIT is where I became myself — a thinker and an engineer.”
Her social experiences at MIT also proved formative. “I was thrown into a melting pot full of highly motivated people who held different perspectives from me, and at a human level, I grew.”
Part of that growth came from Sivels’ immersion in secondary-school teaching during her undergraduate years. In high school, she routinely tutored younger students, and thought a career in education might ultimately prove rewarding. While earning her NSE degree Sivels pursued a middle school general science teaching degree, and worked directly with students at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, school. “I saw how important it was for students to learn from someone who looked like them — young, black, female — someone they could relate to,” she says.
Pushed toward nuclear engineering
Sivels pivoted from a teaching career on to the advice of her advisor, Richard K. Lester, then department head and now associate provost. “He knew I wanted to teach, but he told me I hadn’t really given nuclear engineering a chance, that I’d just taken the classes but not tried research,” recalls Sivels, whose summers had exclusively been occupied by teaching internships. Lester pointed her toward opportunities that would “show me what nuclear engineering was really about,” she says. “I was lucky he was my advisor; he changed the course of my career.”
One of those opportunities included an internship at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, just after graduation from MIT. There Sivels became engaged 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. This research expanded to become the foundation of her graduate school 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. “We fabricated something that could plug and play in existing technology at these stations.”
Now at APL, she leverages the knowledge and problem-solving skills she acquired at MIT and Michigan to make “critical contributions to critical challenges that face the nation,” Sivels says. But she also makes contributions in other areas important to her. She was recently named one of the nation’s 125 American Association for the Advancement of Science If/Then ambassadors, an initiative aimed at middle-school girls to further women in STEM fields. Also, she serves as a math mentor for elementary kids. “Working with students is a highlight for me,” she says. “Maybe if they see someone like me doing something they never knew was possible, it might change their lives.”