Ciara Sivels, a nuclear engineer at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Hopkins, was recently chosen to be one of 125 National IF/THEN Ambassadors for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
This prestigious role seeks to empower and inspire women in STEM through social media campaigns. There are various kinds of ambassadors in the program, ranging from MDs and PhDs to graduate students.
The intent is to create a pool of leaders and figures for girls interested in STEM to look up to. When asked about the program, Sivels explained that visibility is a large component.
“The overall goal… [was to] show that STEM is possible, and that STEM doesn’t look one way,” she said in an interview with The News-Letter.
Broadening the archetype of the quintessential STEM woman is of key interest to Sivels. Growing up, she never really heard of women in STEM careers. Despite excelling in chemistry, she was more interested in the culinary arts. It was only with the encouragement of a high school chemistry teacher that she decided to go into STEM. Both Sivels and IF/THEN recognize middle school as the critical age to inspire girls about STEM careers.
“Middle school is where students start coming up with identities. They start coming up with these ideas about what ‘x, y and z’ look like. What a scientist looks like; what an engineer looks like,” Sivels said. “Can I do science? Can I do math? And so middle school is where a lot of times a student first gets interested in science and engineering and math.”
Middle school is often the age when students, especially female students, start losing interest in STEM. But Sivel believes that if there is just one thing they connect with — one thing that inspires them — it can alter the entire trajectory of their life.
Sivels explained that she is especially focused on inspiring students who come from underprivileged backgrounds.
“My focus is targeting minority STEM students and inner city school students and trying to get them more involved in STEM,” Sivels said.
She currently works as a math mentor for one of APL’s enrichment programs. In the program, volunteers are paired with elementary school students that they work with for a year.
Sivels has had her own share of struggles to get to where she is today. One of the hardest challenges she faced was getting through her undergraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“There was a point where I was like, ‘If I don’t pass this class, I’m transferring,’” Sivels said.
Because she spent so much of her high school years planning for culinary school, she found herself unprepared for the engineering program at MIT. She had not taken calculus or advanced physics like many of her fellow students, so she found herself constantly trying to catch up to her other classmates.
Sivels emphasizes that her struggles do not mean the coursework was too difficult. Rather, her background had not prepared her to excel in the engineering classes at MIT. Because of this, some grades from her early years at MIT were not great, making it difficult to get into graduate school. She overcame these challenges and got into the University of Michigan’s nuclear engineering program, one of the top programs in the country.
After graduating in 2018, Sivels immediately joined APL at Hopkins. Her work there is classified and focuses on radiation, its effects and its applications. She spends a large amount of time running radiation transport simulations and uses her engineering skills to solve problems and think on a higher level.
When asked what advice she would give for undergraduates at Hopkins, Sivels had some wisdom to share.
“Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. We’re all human.... Trust yourself. You know what you know, and nobody can take that away from you,” Sivels said.