Charlyne Smith, who grew up in St. Catherine and is a former student at St. Catherine High School in Jamaica, is the first Black woman to earn a PhD in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Florida (UF). Smith was inspired by her grandfather 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. 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 energy toward solving the energy problem for her country and others like it.
Prior to attending FSU, she was a student at Coppin State University (CSU) in Baltimore, Maryland. She graduated in 2017 with a degree in chemistry and mathematics. While at Coppin, she studied fruits with dark pigments to create dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs), hypothesizing that these cells would absorb enough ultraviolet radiation (UV) to power large devices. She discovered this was not a feasible path toward providing reliable power to third-world countries in the immediate future. After a conversation with Dr. Nickie Peters – her first meeting with a nuclear scientist – at an alumni event at CSU, Smith moved on from solar research to pursue a career in the nuclear field, becoming convinced that nuclear technology has the potential to make real change happen immediately. She received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2018 to study at UF’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
After traveling to the United States to pursue academic opportunities in solar energy research, Smith realized the “severity of living conditions in Jamaica.” The disparity between the reliable energy available in the US compared to the unreliable energy access in Jamaica motivated her to ensure that the next generation of Jamaican children “will never know a day without access to clean water and reliable electricity.” While Smith acknowledges that renewable technology like solar will benefit these countries within 50 to 100 years, she also believes that every minute spent on research that does not directly improve the lives of families today only exacerbates the problem.
Jamaica operates the only nuclear reactor in the Caribbean, the Slowpoke research reactor, which is used chiefly for education and training and not for energy-related applications. 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 toward a better future.
This was her reason to seek a PhD in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Florida. “For me, nuclear is the obvious immediate solution while renewable research takes some time to reach its maximum potential. I do this for my Grandfather. I do this for the survival of countries like mine,” she said.