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Profile In Excellence: PhD Student Mareena Robinson


The story of MIT PhD nuclear science & engineering student Mareena Robinson, is a prime example of how vital family support is..when it comes to reaching your full potential.


After arriving on campus for her first year at Florida A&M University..Mareena was encouraged to try psychics  by her father because he believed it was the future.

“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.

Mareena’s success as a fourth yr PhD student goes back to being raised by a single father who didn’t make excuses.

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.”

In 2014, there is no reason that she can’t excel because after all her relatives were getting PhDs in the 1930’s

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.”

The road to MIT wasn’t always a easy one but it was the support of her family that made her even more determined.

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.

Mareena also had doubts about what she was doing but had enough confidence to apply to MIT anyway.

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.

Mareena won a scholarship geared toward research on warhead confirmation

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.

Mareena  acknowledges that family support was the key to developing the confidence to pursue nuclear science & engineering.

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.


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