A Trailblazing Engineer Says “Invention Is in Everything I Do”

Karen Panetta, dean of graduate education at Tufts School of Engineering, reflects on her innovative career

Karen Panetta developed a knack for computer programming in high school, inspired by the “magic that was inside the box.” That curiosity would fuel a trailblazing career in engineering as an educator, a researcher, a mentor for young women, and an inventor.

Panetta was inducted this month into the National Academy of Inventors, the first woman from Tufts University to earn that honor. She joined Tufts in 1994, rising through the ranks to become the first woman granted tenure in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; she is now also dean of graduate education for the School of Engineering. Her research includes developing software that uses artificial intelligence to improve medical diagnostics and to enhance robotic vision, for applications such as underwater search-and-rescue.

Panetta also has paved the way for young women to pursue their own engineering paths. She founded the Nerd Girls program in 2000 to encourage young women to pursue engineering and science; today the program is a national multimedia enterprise that includes the Nerd Girl Nation web series. She was honored for her pioneering work in education with a U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math and Engineering Mentoring, presented by President Barack Obama in 2011. She also founded IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine, of which she is editor-in-chief.

Tufts Now asked her about her trailblazing career and her advice for young people today.

Tufts Now: What early influences shaped your invention skills?

Karen Panetta: I was always inventing things, like rollercoasters out of paper towel rolls. My dad, who grew up in Medford, worked on heavy construction equipment. He loved to make machinery, which he sold to pay for our college educations.

He saw my aptitude for math and science and thought I should be a civil engineer, but I had no idea what that was. Zero. When it came time for college, he said: “You're going to be an engineer.”

That’s why, when we used to walk around campus years later, I held his hand. I think students who saw us thought it was a bit funny: The professor is holding her father’s hand! And I wanted to say to them: “You know what? I'm very proud. I am a professor, and I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Why electrical and computer engineering?

I had a knack for computer programming, but I wanted to learn not just programming, but also the magic inside the box. In college, I learned how to build semiconductors, and my dream was to work for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). That's what I did, and they also paid for my master’s and Ph.D. in exchange for going into teaching. DEC thought that if they put engineers back into colleges as educators, students would have a more realistic education that mapped to real-world issues and challenges. At the time, there were no internships either, but I secured donor funding for the School of Engineering’s first career internship coordinator. Now, everyone understands the value of industry experience while you’re a student.

Did you have any sense that you were in the vanguard because of your gender?

I knew it was going to be a profession where I would have to make some inroads. When I came to Tufts, there were no women in my field. Career websites said: “Electrical engineers work in labs doing math problems and working with soldering irons.” I wouldn't have become an electrical engineer if I saw that. The message I took was that I could be a mentor for women students—I could show them there was so much more to engineering.

What were early reactions to Nerd Girls, and how did the program make a difference?

I received pushback from some people who were thrown off by the name. “You call them girls; they're women. And you call them nerds.” Back then the definition of nerd had a certain stereotype associated with the name and I wanted to redefine that. I wanted to take ownership of the word and turn it into a positive thing. Most outreach programs show that women can be good teachers, but Nerd Girls went beyond this and emphasized that women can be innovators and leaders. And that helps the students learn there are no limits. All students, including women, can be teachers and business leaders and entrepreneurs.

Looking back, what were pivotal choices you made early in your own career?

I’d have to say the most influential was joining the IEEE [Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers]. They gave me leadership opportunities, and that made all the difference to my career. I was interacting on committees with medical doctors and biomedical and physicists and mathematicians and learning about other people's research. I’ve tried to do that throughout my career: The more perspectives you bring in, the more diverse personalities you bring in, the more robust and creative the solution.

You co-authored a book, Count Girls In: Empowering Girls to Combine Any Interests with STEM to Open Up a World of Opportunity with Katianne Williams, E96, who was part of the Nerd Girls. Any key message from the book that you want to share with young girls and their parents and teachers?

It’s never too early to start. We used to say, “Get them in fourth or fifth grade or eighth grade.” To that I ask: Did you teach them to read and write when they were in fourth grade? No, you start them from the very beginning. And that's exactly the way math and science need to be taught.

 

Karen Panetta and young women engineers, part of a group called the Nerd Girls, pose with their solar-powered car in 2002. Photo: Mark MorelliKaren Panetta and young women engineers, part of a group called the Nerd Girls, pose with their solar-powered car in 2002. Photo: Mark Morelli

The Presidential Award is the nation's highest award for engineering, science, mathematics, and mentoring in education. What does national recognition mean to you?

It was a very proud moment in my career! But so was being accepted into the National Academy of Inventors. Invention is in everything I do. Even before I came to Tufts, when I was at DEC, I was the co-inventor of the first digital twin of a whole computer. Research I’m doing now in artificial intelligence involves developing algorithms that emulate human vision and find ways to visualize sensor information the human eye can’t readily see. I believe fundamentally that emulating human systems is the best way to channel my engineering knowledge.

What words of encouragement do you have for young girls and women who are considering engineering?

I use an analogy from sports. If you join a sports team and you lose the game, you don't give up the sport. Engineering is the same way. Failure is part of it, and if you're not failing, then you're probably not doing something right.

Everybody thinks their career is going to be a linear, direct path. It's actually a series of zig zags. So keep pivoting and keep going. Stay away from negative people. Find people who are going to empower you. Surround yourself with encouraging people and ignore the noise. Trust that you have the training you need, and that there are people out there ready to help you get where you want to go.

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