Former Resident Honored for Mentoring by Obama

Thursday, February 2, 2012
By Transcript Staff

President Barack Obama honored former Winthrop resident and Winthrop High graduate Dr. Karen Panetta (center) as a Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. Dr. Panetta is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tufts University.

President Obama honored former Winthrop resident, Dr. Karen Panetta as an Outstanding Science, Math and Engineering Mentor.

On December 12, when former Winthrop resident and Winthrop High School graduate, Dr. Karen Panetta entered the West Wing of the White House, she couldn’t help but be in awe of the Marine standing perfectly frozen at attention as she passed him. The corridor walls were lined with Norman Rockwell paintings, which depicted scenes of famous people waiting in the same area as Karen Panetta now found herself, waiting for her appointment with U.S. President Obama.

At the end of the hallway, a door opened and out stepped U.S. President Barack Obama welcoming and inviting Dr. Panetta and her fellow colleagues into the Oval Office. For the first time in her life, the Tufts University Professor found herself speechless.

Dr. Panetta was among nine individuals and eight organizations that President Obama has honored as recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

Administered by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring is awarded by the White House to individuals and organizations in recognition of the crucial role that mentoring plays in the academic and personal development of students studying science and engineering–particularly those who belong to groups that are underrepresented in these fields. By offering their expertise and encouragement, mentors help prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers while ensuring that tomorrow’s innovators reflect and benefit from the diverse talent of the United States.

Colleagues, administrators and students in their home institutions nominate candidates for the award. The mentoring can involve students at any grade level from elementary through graduate school. In addition to being honored at the White House, recipients receive awards of $25,000 from NSF to advance their mentoring efforts.

“Through their commitment to education and innovation, these individuals and organizations are playing a crucial role in the development of our 21st century workforce,” President Obama said when he first announced the awardees. “Our nation owes them a debt of gratitude for helping ensure that America remains the global leader in science and engineering for years to come.”

Dr. Panetta’s work with youth to inspire them to pursue engineering and science through her internationally acclaimed “Nerd Girls” Program has impacted many Massachusetts communities. When the Twin Lights on Thacher Island lost power due to the lack of electricity, Dr. Panetta and her team of Nerd Girls, came to the rescue using solar energy to restore electricity to the North Tower light Beacon. Their LED Light Beacon was the first to use LED technology for lighthouses and has subsequently been adopted by the U.S. Coast Guard for other lighthouses. The team also designed and implemented solar systems to charge the battery operated car on the island used for transporting supplies as well as a solar energy system to power the island’s two Keeper’s houses.

Each year, Dr. Panetta invites local middle school children and their teachers to visit Dr. Panetta and a team of her Nerd Girls on the Tufts University campus in Medford, MA to experience what it is like to be an engineering student and work on real world projects that change people’s lives.

Dr. Panetta and her team currently have more projects underway, and this award will allow them to complete those projects as well as help local schools explore new engineering and science projects for students.

Dr. Panetta in a press release stated, “I am very excited about this award. It is really a testament to my parents, Rita and Ralph Panetta of Winthrop, who worked so hard to ensure that I could attend college after graduating from Winthrop High School.”

Dr. Panetta is the first woman engineer to ever receive tenure in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tufts University and is a Fellow of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers). She is the Editor-In-Chief of the award winning IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine. In 2007-2009, Dr. Panetta served as the IEEE Women in Engineering Worldwide Director and was the 2011 Chair of the Boston Section of the IEEE. She is the 2011 Anita Borg Institute, Women of Vision recipient and has been recognized by the Massachusetts Conference for Women, and received the American Association of Engineering Societies, Norman Augustine Award. In 2011, She was awarded a Medal as the Harriet B. Rigas Award from the IEEE Education Society. She is the Founder of the internationally acclaimed Nerd Girls Program. Dr. Panetta received a B.S. degree in Computer Engineering from Boston University and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Northeastern University.  Dr. Panetta is the wife of Mr. Jamie Heller and is the daughter of Ralph and Rita Panetta of Winthrop and the sister of Ralph Jr. and Mark Panetta of Saugus.

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