Karen Panetta: Bringing Geek Chic Into Style

Dispelling the myth of the nerdy female engineer

5 December 2008

profileWhen IEEE Fellow Karen Panetta and a group of her engineering students, dubbed the Nerd Girls, appeared on NBC’s “The Today Show” in July, the idea was to promote the fact that female engineers can be attractive and hip.

So what viewer feedback does Panetta remember reading on the network’s Web site? “You only picked the pretty girls!” viewers chastised. Panetta—who chose the young women for the segment to represent the varied careers and successes of her Nerd Girl alumni—was more amused by the students’ reaction. “They wondered, ‘People think we’re pretty?’” she says with a laugh.

“The stereotype of what people think female engineers should look like always stuck with me,” says Panetta, a professor of electrical engineering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “The girls I knew who were studying engineering didn’t just sit in a basement with pizza boxes focusing on work, work, work. They were also musicians, ballet dancers, and cheerleaders.” To help dispel the myth of the geeky “engineeress,” Panetta began working on the Nerd Girls program in 1996.

The Nerd Girls—about 14 Tufts engineering undergrads each year—work on socially conscious projects such as environmental cleanup, green energy, and improving mobility for the disabled. For example, the group rewired a historic lighthouse to run on renewable energy. Another undertaking involved a voice-activated system that let a quadriplegic dispense treats to a monkey helper assisting with simple ambulatory tasks.

Panetta says she hoped to foster camaraderie among and support for aspiring female engineers and to retain them in engineering, though the program is open to men as well.

She says the program tries to offer real-world experience, practice working on a team with students from other engineering disciplines, and a support system for female-oriented styles of collaboration.

The group has attracted media attention from Newsweek and other news outlets, plus corporate sponsorships and grants totaling more than US $100 000. The donations will be used to cover expenses for the next eight years, Panetta says.

And the group might soon have its own TV show. Panetta is meeting with a number of networks to discuss a Nerd Girls reality series that would follow the undergrads as they work on projects.

Panetta didn’t set out to be a mentor. After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Boston University in 1986, she worked for Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC, now a part of Intel), in Hudson, Mass. She earned a master’s in 1988 and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1994 from Northeastern University, Boston. Her IEEE involvement began as a student member. “It helped me get my first job,” she says. “I’d go to IEEE conferences and work the registration booth. People got to know me and asked for my résumé.”

In 1995, she was accepted into DEC’s Engineers Into Education, a program for employees wanting to teach that placed them in academic institutions for two-year stints to help students navigate between classroom theory and real-world problem solving. She chose Tufts because of its focus on undergraduates. After her first year there, she left her job at DEC and joined the university as its first female electrical engineering professor. At the time, the department had only one female undergraduate EE student.

Panetta formed the precursor to the Nerd Girls in 1996 during a summer gig consulting for NASA in Langley, Va. She worked at the data visualization and animation lab translating complex information into a user-friendly animated form. The programs visualized the Earth’s atmosphere and identified pollutants, their origins, and how they affected lives and the environment.

“I didn’t have stipend money to pay grad students to help with the research, so I asked undergrad­uates, both male and female,” Panetta says. “Female students flocked to me because they could relate to the work I was doing, loved how their skills could benefit humanity, and didn’t see me as the classic nerd professor with no life. Eventually, the girls out­numbered the boys.

“The project ended up winning awards,” she continues. “Tufts couldn’t believe that undergrads had a hand in the research. That’s when things really turned around.” Nerd Girls officially launched in 2000.

Nerd Girls has morphed into as much of a social group as an engineering organization. “How many engineering groups will spend 13 hours straight putting together a solar-powered car and then go shopping?” asks Panetta, who continues to attract women to engineering. Last year she founded IEEE’s electronic Women in Engineering Magazine and became its editor.

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