Engineering prof. lauded for advancing women in science

Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Karen Panetta this month received the Anita Borg Women of Vision Award in recognition of her work in engineering education, particularly for her encouragement of female engineers.

Panetta is the first Tufts faculty member to receive this award, according to Jerri Barrett, Vice President of Marketing for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI).

Panetta entered the field of education in the 1990s after working for several years as a computer engineer and found a lack of enthusiasm for engineering among women.

“When I first came to Tufts, I was the first woman in the engineering department,” she said. “I was alone, and when they hired me they said they wanted me to be a mentor for women. There was only one problem: There were no women.”

To a lesser degree, this problem is still present today. Less than 20 percent of all the engineering degrees earned in the past year in the United States last year were awarded to women, according to Panetta.

“I started to dig deeper, and I found that a lot of young women were intimidated by technology, even though they were scoring well on math and science [tests],” she said.

Panetta’s interest in encouraging women to study science led her to start the Nerd Girls Club in 2000, which provides opportunities for young women to realize their interest in math and science.

“Nerd Girls came about because I wanted to show girls, and specifically students, the power they had to change the world,” Panetta said.

Students in the club have worked on a number of engineering projects, including the creation of an energy-efficient power source for a lighthouse and solar-powered cars.

Nicole Ng (LA ’09), a former club member, helped develop the electrical components of a solar-powered car by wiring batteries and solar panels. She said being part of the group allowed her to expand her education beyond what she learned at Tufts.

“It’s really great because you get to work with female engineering students outside of a classroom context, working on projects that we wouldn’t get a chance to work on otherwise,” said Ng. “The Nerd Girls program and Professor Panetta have really given me … confidence, support and encouragement.”

Panetta is a former director of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Women in Engineering, the largest professional organization for women in engineering and science, and is currently the editor-in-chief of the IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine.

Panetta said one of her proudest achievements has been to help in the effort to eradicate stereotypes about female engineers.

Barrett emphasized the prestigious nature of the ABI recognition.

“This award is really a lifetime achievement award for all of Karen’s technical and social impact accomplishments,” Barrett told the Daily in an email. “This is considered one of the top honors for women in technology.”

Anita Borg, a computer scientist, in 1997 founded ABI, which seeks to heighten the impact of women in the world of technology and use science to help women around the world.

“[Anita Borg] was an icon who not only changed the face of computing, but was an unbelievable role model, one of very few female role models in computing,” Panetta said.

Panetta on May 19 will be publicly honored for the award at the sixth annual Women of Vision Awards Banquet in Santa Clara, Calif.