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For These Black Women in STEM, Teachers’ Encouragement Went a Long Way

Ciara Sivels had her heart set on becoming a pastry chef and attending culinary school after graduation, until her high school chemistry teacher encouraged her to pursue chemical engineering after realizing how good she was at the subject.

Photo of Dr. Ciara Sivels“I was like, ‘No, I don’t even know what that is. I’m going to culinary school. I have no interest in that,’” Sivels said. Still, her chemistry teacher asked her to try the Advanced Placement chemistry class.

Sivels found that she liked chemistry and the idea of “atoms and elements and putting them together and making something new.” She connected it back to cooking and baking, because there’s a similar process of “taking all these different ingredients and coming up with something delicious.”

After high school, Sivels attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a mentor steered her toward nuclear engineering. She got her Bachelor’s Degree in nuclear science and engineering at MIT, earned her Master’s Degree in nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan, and then became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at Michigan.

“Those little nuggets of wisdom that people had or [teachers and mentors] taking the time to listen and hear what I’m interested in changed my trajectory,” Sivels said. “That’s how I ended up where I am today.”

Sivels was one of the panelists at the Feb. 21 National Math and Science Initiative webinar about how to encourage diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math industries. The webinar also featured former NASA astronaut and electrical engineer Joan Higginbotham, who was the third Black woman to go into space.

STEM occupations are projected to grow by almost 11 percent by 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while there’s a high share of women in science-related healthcare jobs, they continue to be underrepresented in engineering, computer science, and physical science jobs.

Read the full article at Education Week