Karen Panetta is Dean of Graduate Engineering Education at Tufts University. Tufts is recognized as a premier university dedicated to educating new leaders for a changing world.
Karen Panetta’s Story
When did your interest in science or engineering begin?
As a little girl, I was always interested in “magic” and dreaming of solutions to problems I saw around me. My father recognized this and encouraged me to become an engineer, despite him not having more than a high school education himself. He promoted the discipline to me by explaining that I would be financially independent and able to support my bad shopping habit. I loved math and science but knew nothing of how it connected to engineering.
What was it like to be a woman studying in your field?
There were very few women studying in my field when I started. Role model women known to me were already long deceased. I didn’t understand why women were absent until I witnessed how the false stereotypes of smart women that persisted were truly barriers that needed to be overcome. This challenge inspired me to start the Nerd Girls Program, which has changed the way society viewed the potential and contributions of smart, talented women. It showed that it is our individuality that brings innovation.
Share with us some of your career highlights.
Karen is the recipient of the NSF Presidential Award for Engineering Science, Mathematics Education and Mentoring, from U.S. President Barack Obama, the Norm Augustine Award from the American Association of Engineering Societies, Anita Borg Institute, Women of Vision Award, inaugural recipient of the IEEE Ethical Practices Award, Harriet B. Rigas Award and the NSF CAREER Award. She is an IEEE Fellow, IEEE JOVE Fellow and received numerous NASA Research Excellence Awards and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) “Engineers into Education” Fellow.
She was elected the 2019 President of IEEE HKN (Eta-Kappa, Nu) and is the Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine, contributor to Forbes and Vice-President of IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics Society. She is the founder of internationally acclaimed Nerd Girls Program to empower women and girls to pursue STEM careers.
To date, what project is your greatest innovation success? What is the story behind it?
The Nerd Girls Program has evolved to empower women around the world. It was the first program to openly declare that our collective diverse perspectives can solve any challenge facing humanity. It disrupted the notion that only those who are the very best at math and science are invited to pursue STEM careers. It redefined the STEM recipe to include the most special ingredient, namely our individual passions and interests that make us uniquely us. I was fortunate to travel around the world to meet young aspiring women and help them make their dreams come true by connecting them to opportunities, positive role models and valuing their individuality. I am awestruck by their accomplishments and am so proud to have watched each and every one of them grow and flourish.
Tell us about something that made you grow the most as a leader in your field.
I learned that I can be the change that makes change happen. I learned this by reaching out beyond my own institution, comfort zone and embracing that failure was ok was instrumental in my personal growth. I learned to appreciate the perspectives of others and how our personal experiences can inspire us to grab hold of a challenge and find a way to solve problems, even if we alone, don’t have all the skills or confidence to do it. I know how to ask questions and am not intimidated to reach out for help. I now find that I have the capacity help others and accomplish any complex mission. I achieve this by empowering people, value their contributions, and promote their efforts without them asking.
How are you and/or your company bringing innovation to the forefront?
I have start-up companies with my students, one of which creates low-cost, low-power technology to help protect our oceans. My inventions have dramatically advanced the field of imaging processing through pioneering methods that can emulate human vision to display the best human perceptual image to ensure our health, safety and security. From detecting threat objects, aiding in underwater search missions, or helping radiologists better and more accurately detect medical anomalies in images, my work has enhanced human performance in diagnosis and decision making. My artificial electrolarynx offers patients a more natural sounding voice, offering a compassionate solution to mechanical sounding devices. While this market may not be a lucrative one due to its small size, it is an example of how important it is to “Do the right thing” because I have the capacity and skills to help this underserved population of patients.
What advice do you have for future female engineers?
Embrace the things that make you, you and celebrate that uniqueness. Surround yourself with people who empower you and discard those who try to diminish your value. Failure is part of the recipe and be proud of each attempt, for it builds your agility for your next quest.