Now a fourth-year PhD student in nuclear science and engineering at MIT, Robinson researches warhead confirmation, a crucial technological hurdle to international disarmament. Currently, most nuclear arms-control agreements, such as the 2010 New START treaty between Russia and the United States, focus on decreasing the number of deployed nuclear weapons: weapons that are physically mounted on missile launchers. The problem with such treaties is that they don’t address the actual decommissioning of the weapons.
The primary issue is one of verification: If the United States claims to have dismantled a weapon, how can it prove this to Russia without giving Russian inspectors access to a weapon that might reveal key technological secrets? Or, as 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.
When she was accepted into the undergraduate business program at Florida A&M University (FAMU), Mareena Robinson thought she had her future all figured out: She would go to law school and become an attorney, like her father, or else a businesswoman.
But when she and her father arrived on campus at the beginning of freshman year, he made an offer the self-described “obedient daughter” couldn’t refuse: to pay a visit to the physics department, where he had a distant connection to a friend-of-a-friend.
“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.
Her father was sold on the program, telling her: “Mareena, I don’t know anything about this physics stuff. I can’t do one equation. But I feel like this is the wave of the future and I just need you to try it. And if you hate it or you can’t do it, you can be a theater major for all I care. But just give it a shot.”