Samantha Neirby is about to go where mostly men have gone before. 

The United States Navy has chosen Neirby — who is finishing her chemical engineering degree this spring at Michigan Technological University — to train to serve on a nuclear submarine. She will be just the third woman Naval officer ever recruited from a college or university to serve on a sub.

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Neirby passed the final hurdle — an interview with Admiral Kirkland H. Donald, director of Naval nuclear propulsion and deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration — in Washington, D.C. this week. With the Navy’s stamp of approval, after she graduates from Michigan Tech in April, she will go to the Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., where she will be commissioned upon graduation. Then she will enter a one-year nuclear power training program in Goose Creek, S.C.

“I just can’t tell you how excited I am,” Neirby exclaimed. “Working in nuclear power has been my dream since about my second year in high school. It’s fascinating, so much energy coming from something so small. I believe nuclear energy is the future of our country, and I want to be part of that.”

Neirby, who is on the Dean’s list at Michigan Tech, has been in the Navy’s Nuclear Power Officer Candidate Program for two years. Following her nuclear dream, she sought out the Navy recruiter at Michigan Tech’s Career Fair in fall 2008, and when she heard about NUPOC, she jumped at the opportunity.

Initially she expected to serve on a nuclear carrier, but when her Navy recruiter suggested that she try for a nuclear submarine assignment, she didn’t hesitate.

“I grew up in a small community, and Michigan Tech is a small school with small classes,” she said.” I found a home at Tech and in my sorority, almost like a family. Life on a submarine is a little like that.”

But, as a woman in the man’s world of a submarine, Neirby isn’t expecting domestic bliss.

“I know there will be lots of challenges,” she said. “Men who are used to working in an all-male environment will have a woman officer they report to, or they will have to work side by side with a woman. They may not have faith in my abilities. And a lot of people just don’t like change.”

She does expect to face a lot of jokes and teasing, “but not in a vulgar way,” she said confidently.

And she feels sure she can handle it.

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“I think chemical engineering is one of the hardest majors at Tech,” she explained. “It taught me to deal with stress, to expect the unexpected and to keep at problems until you find a way to solve them.”

Neirby has impressed her professors at Michigan Tech as much as she has impressed the Navy.

“Samantha’s experience in the chemical engineering department shows what a good student with drive can accomplish,” said Tony Rogers, associate professor of chemical engineering and one of Neirby’s senior deign instructors. “Her senior design team accepted the challenge of designing a commercial process for charcoal production in Panama, while sustaining the mangrove tree raw material and reducing harmful air emissions. In this and other activities, Samantha has become known at Michigan Tech as a student who pushes the envelope, exceeds expectations and is not afraid to try new things. Becoming one of the first woman commissioned officers to serve on a US Navy submarine is another step in her exciting career journey. She is proving that chemical engineering opens a lot of doors to students willing to walk through them.”

John Sandell, an associate professor of chemical engineering, agreed. Sandell heads Michigan Tech’s Unit Operations Lab, a fully automated model chemical processing plant where seniors take a capstone course in chemical engineering. 

”This recognition is very well deserved.” he said. “Samantha has outstanding technical skills coupled with excellent leadership abilities which make her the ultimate team player. She does not seek the spotlight; the spotlight seeks her.”

Since she joined NUPOC, Neirby has been a full-time naval officer candidate receiving Petty Officer First Class basic pay, housing allowance and meals.
“Her job was to go to school,” Navy recruiter Matt Menard explained.

As a full-time Naval officer candidate and a full-time chemical engineering student, Neirby still found time to be active in the Lambda Theta chapter of Delta Zeta sorority and to serve on the Panhellenic Council at Michigan Tech. She also plays broomball, a strenuous winter sport that is extremely popular at the university in Houghton, on Michigan’s snowy Upper Peninsula.

An active member of the Michigan Tech chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AiChE), Neirby is also helping host the upcoming the AIChE North Central Regional Student Conference April 8 and 9 on the Michigan Tech campus.

The daughter of the late Jeffrey Neirby and Rita Schmidt of Fargo, N.D., she attended Moorhead Senior High School in Moorhead, Minn., where she was raised by her grandmother, Ilene Neirby and her older brother, Adam Neirby.

“I know without their support, I would never have made it this far,” she said.

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