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Dr. Karen Panetta Receives Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering

This is a fabulous time to be a Nerd Girl. Proof: Do you see that dazzling picture of Nerd Girls founder Dr. Karen Panetta with President Obama in the Oval Office?

Dr. Karen was among nine individuals and eight organizations honored in 2010-2011 for their contributions to the education of the scientists, mathematicians, and engineers of the future. Additionally, honorees receive awards of $25,000 from the National Science Foundation to further their mentoring efforts.

In addition to her academic mentoring efforts, Dr. Karen hopes to advance Nerd Girl culture through the media with Nerd Girls Inc. Check out this awesome interview she did for BBC World Today to get the inside scoop:

I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Karen some questions about the award, with the hope that my questions might inspire new ones from the rest of you (take advantage of that “ASK DR. KAREN” button in the Nav bar!).

CC: First of all, congratulations on the award!

KP: Thank you. It’s nice to have Nerd Girls nationally recognized as a program and to have the President of the United States endorse it.

CC: Do you have a plan for how you’re going to use the mentoring funds?

KP: Yes, we’re going to continue be utilizing the funds to sponsor other Nerd Girl projects to improve the lives of individuals, communities, and the environment. Whenever we go out to help somebody, we never charge them. We do it all on our own, using our own materials. We also do all this outreach, but a lot of schools can’t even afford a bus, so the funds will also be used to help get inner-city schools that might not be able to afford to attend an event to come and share in the Nerd Girl experience. One of the other things that we’re going to be doing is working with veterans.

CC: Wonderful. What would you say is the cardinal rule of mentorship?

KP: Nobody’s ever asked me that before! I guess it would be “Always Empower,” and have them understand that you can’t be afraid to fail. Failure’s part of the process to success.

CC: Great. How do you find the balance between helping students and letting them discover things for themselves?

KP: That was one of the most challenging things when I began the Nerd Girls program. That’s why I think we’ve become experts at it, because we struggled in the beginning. They have the inherent skillset to do it, but they haven’t had to put all the pieces together. So, I frame the problem, I have a solution or a couple of alternative solutions at hand, that I might want to explore. I might be missing a few pieces, but I have outlined some of the architecture of the solutions, and I bounce if off of them, and once they see it they can build off that straw template.

CC: Would you say that it is a learning environment for you as well?

KP: Sure! I knew nothing about renewable energy before we built that solar car. I knew nothing about wind energy or wave power before we did the Thacher Island projects. They were things that I needed to know to make sure that our solutions were in harmony with the community we were serving.

CC: So when did you realize you had reached a point in your career that you should be dedicating yourself to mentoring girls in science and engineering?

KP: Well, when I took the Ph. D qualifier and I was the only woman there, and when I was a student as an undergrad, and there were no women there, and then when I came to Tufts, and I was the only woman professor, and there were no women students there… there was like, a big question mark. Why am I alone? Then later on, as I matured, a lot of my women friends that were engineers (that I thought were a zillion times smarter than me), were all dropping out of engineering, and that to me was another epidemic, that still needs to be addressed.

CC: What advice would you give to the people who might be interested in mentorship but are held back because they feel maybe they haven’t accomplished enough in their own careers yet?

KP: You’d be so surprised. Everybody has a story to tell, and it’s those personal stories and personal connections that help inspire youth. Not reciting books, it’s not just doing an advanced project, it’s being able to explain things to people in your own voice. Anybody that’s ever been challenged, and overcome a challenge, or been told “no,” understands the value of having somebody standing behind them saying, “You can do this.”

CC: When there’s a student that you know can do better and isn’t committing enough, how do you tell them that without seeming negative?

KP: I have two different types of students that do that. I have some that have the potential, but at the confidence level, they feel like they should give up. It’s easier to get them back on track. Usually I include them on some project, and I point out their successes to them – things that they just think, “well, I got lucky.” Knowing their name, that’s usually a big one. You know who they are, and you ask them about what their future aspirations are. Anybody who takes personal interest in helping you further your own future goals is automatically mentoring you.

The other type is when I get students who are so bright and just don’t want to apply themselves. That to me is the worst atrocity. What they don’t realize is that it’s an investment. Especially if you’re in school, this is the time that you should be making your mistakes and learning from those mistakes, because when you get out there, people aren’t going to be as forgiving, when they’re paying you to do a job. Another goal of Nerd Girls is when we do projects for disabled people, or who are terminally ill, the project is done immediately and it has to be top-quality. So taking a B on something like that, or B-, just to satisfy you… it’s not about satisfying you anymore, and they get that connection.

CC: And for those who are maybe later on in their life and are just starting to discover their inner Nerd Girl – they’re not in school anymore but they can still further themselves. Where should they start?

KP: Once you’re out of school, one of the most important things is networking. You have to go to events, things that you don’t even think will apply to you. So, you know, I might go to some events for K-12 outreach, and guess what, the parents there are heads of companies. The most valuable connections are probably going to be at the events that you least expected anything out of. If somebody’s looking for career advice – I try my best to respond. That’s why the Ask Dr. Karen series is so important, is because now it’s going to allow me to reach a broader audience.

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