JAMAICA'S Charlyne Smith, the first black woman to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering from a predominantly white university in the United States, has her gaze firmly set on the nuclear research reactor called Slowpoke at The University of the West Indies (The UWI).
Smith, who grew up in St Catherine and is a former student of Spanish Town-based St Catherine High School, graduated with her doctorate from the University of Florida last month.
“Mi seh! Wi nuh dun but wi PhinisheD! I'm so honoured to have made history as the first black woman to graduate with a PhD in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Florida on the day of Jamaica's Independence anniversary,” the happy young woman tweeted afterwards.
Smith, who pursued the PhD on a scholarship from Coppin State University in Baltimore, Maryland, from which she graduated in 2017 with a degree in chemistry and mathematics, was featured in the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) online news site, HBCUbuzz.
She credited her grandfather for her historic achievement, saying he had inspired her to use her intelligence and drive to help “make Jamaica a better place”.
“As a child in St Catherine, Smith dreamed of becoming a scientist and inventor so she could help to resolve some of the basic problems faced by families like hers who struggled to access electrical power and other reliable infrastructure,” the news outlet said.
“She wondered why, when she lived on a tropical island surrounded by water, all 2.8 million residents of Jamaica did not have access to power and clean water, and decided to do something about it and focused her energy toward solving the energy problem for her country and others like it,” added the news outlet.
It said that while at Coppin, Smith studied fruits with dark pigments to create dye-sensitised solar cells (DSSCs), hypothesising that these cells would absorb enough ultraviolet (UV) radiation to power large devices.
She discovered this was not a feasible path toward providing reliable power to Third World countries in the immediate future, and after a first meeting with a nuclear scientist — Dr Nickie Peters — she moved on from solar research to pursue a career in the nuclear field, convinced that nuclear technology had the potential to make real change happen immediately.
She received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2018 to study at the University of Florida's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and never looked back.
Smith also turned her gaze to her homeland and specifically Slowpoke, the only nuclear research reactor in the Caribbean based at the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences (ICENS), which is used chiefly for education and training and not for energy-related applications.
In 1984, with help from the European Union (EU), the Jamaican Government and The UWI established ICENS to properly manage Jamaica's nuclear research. The EU provided the facility with a Canadian-invented 20KW Slowpoke research reactor, with Professor Gerald Lalor as its director general. Dr Lalor died recently.
Lalor believed placing the reactor on a campus of The UWI would ensure that researchers from other West Indian states could have easy access to it for research purposes.
However, despite the department's big ambitions, shortly after the reactor's commissioning, disaster struck at the Chernobyl nuclear site in Ukraine (then the USSR), dashing plans to explore the use of nuclear power in Jamaica.
Smith believes the reactor should be used to improve access to reliable energy on the island immediately, and that once people are educated about the real potential of nuclear power they will fear it less and move towards a better future.
This was her reason to seek a PhD in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Florida, said HBCUbuzz, quoting as her as saying: “For me, nuclear is the obvious immediate solution while renewable research takes some time to reach its maximum potential.”
Pointing to the severity of living conditions in Jamaica, Smith said the disparity between the reliable energy available in the US compared with the unreliable energy access in Jamaica had motivated her to ensure that “the next generation of Jamaican children will never know a day without access to clean water and reliable electricity”.
She is of the view that renewable technology, like solar, will benefit developing countries like Jamaica. Smith also believes that, “every minute spent on research that does not directly improve the lives of families today only exacerbates the problem”.
— Compiled by Kevin Wainwright and edited by Desmond Allen