Presidential Applause

Two Tufts professors win national award for excellence in mentoring in STEM fields

President Barack Obama has recognized two Tufts professors for their efforts in mentoring science and engineering students.

Peggy Cebe, professor of physics in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Karen Panetta, professor of electrical and computer engineering in the School of Engineering, are among the recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, announced by the White House on Nov. 15.

Cebe and Panetta were among nine individuals and eight organizations cited for their work in teaching and guiding students of all ages in the STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—disciplines, particularly students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in those fields. Tufts was the only institution to have more than one faculty member honored.

Peggy Cebe. Photo: Kelvin MaPeggy Cebe. Photo: Kelvin Ma
“I am thrilled and deeply honored to have been chosen to receive the award,” says Cebe, a researcher in the field of polymer physics, who was recognized for her program that brings deaf and hard of hearing students into her lab for summer internships.

“I believe that early exposure to research in the STEM disciplines is the key to getting students excited about science and engineering generally,” she says. “Many of the deaf and hard of hearing interns have expressed their view that this was a life-changing experience for them. As a result of this program, several former interns were motivated to pursue advanced degrees and have completed, or are now in, graduate school in STEM-related fields.”

Panetta was honored for promoting interest in engineering among women and underrepresented minorities. In 2000, she founded the highly successful Nerd Girls program, which both furthers students’ research skills through real-world interdisciplinary team projects and offers role models to younger girls, countering the often-negative stereotypes of women engineers and scientists in society.

Karen Panetta. Photo: Emily ZilmKaren Panetta. Photo: Emily Zilm
Nerd Girls projects have included building a solar race car, developing alternative energy solutions to power an 18th-century lighthouse off the coast of Rockport, Mass., and devising a system to enable people with physical disabilities to interact more effectively with the assistance of “helper monkeys” trained to aid them with their daily tasks. Ninety-eight percent of Nerd Girls graduates pursue a graduate degree within three years of receiving their undergraduate degree in engineering.

“It’s great to that it’s been recognized that Nerd Girls has been successful at changing the way our nation views women and engineering and science,” says Panetta. “Now they understand that smart girls can do it all.”

As committee chair of IEEE Women in Engineering, Panetta created and serves as editor of the IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine (PDF); 15,000 copies are sent for free to guidance counselors and schools across the country.

An Impressive Record

Cebe launched the summer program for deaf and hard of hearing college students with a pilot program in 2003, and has conducted it every summer since, offering opportunities for four undergraduates. The students come from institutions such as Gallaudet, the country’s only liberal arts college for deaf and hard of hearing students, and Rochester Institute of Technology, home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. They work on projects related to polymer-based nanocomposites and polymers for fuel-cell technology, the same research that Cebe’s undergraduate lab assistants work on during the academic year.

Cebe also has an impressive record of mentoring Tufts students: over the past 24 years, she has had 103 undergraduate lab assistants, 66 percent of whom were from underserved populations such as people with disabilities, women, African Americans and Hispanics.

At a ceremony at the White House on Dec. 12, Peggy Cebe (front row, third from left) and Karen Panetta (front row, fourth from left) were among those receiving awards. Photo: National Science FoundationAt a ceremony at the White House on Dec. 12, Peggy Cebe (front row, third from left) and Karen Panetta (front row, fourth from left) were among those receiving awards. Photo: National Science Foundation
Candidates for the presidential mentoring award are nominated by colleagues, administrators and students at their home institutions. The mentoring can involve students at any grade level, from elementary through graduate school. In addition to being honored Dec. 11-13 at events in Washington, recipients receive awards of $25,000 from the National Science Foundation to advance their mentoring efforts.

“I am very grateful for the opportunity provided to these students through support from the National Science Foundation and look forward to using the award to promote interest in science to pre-college deaf and hard of hearing students,” Cebe says. That would possibly involve a program in which deaf and hard of hearing undergraduates would act as role models to elementary or middle-school students from schools that serve the deaf and hard of hearing community.

“It’s inspiring that I have had the flexibility to be so creative, and that people have supported the initiative,” says Panetta. “While the outside world didn’t realize the potential impact that Nerd Girls could make, Tufts allowed me to run with it.” Money from the grant will be used to help fund Nerd Girls projects and for outreach activities, as such paying for transportation so students can visit Tufts or other venues for Nerd Girls events.


Helene Ragovin can be reached at


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