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‘Nerd Girls’ Founder Visits The Madeira School

On Thursday April 12, Tufts University engineering professor and "science rock star," Dr. Karen Panetta, spoke to students at the Madeira School.

In addition to being the founder of "Nerd Girls," a nationally-acclaimed outreach program aimed at inspiring female students to pursue engineering, Panetta is also a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering, and currently serves as the Worldwide Director of the IEEE Women in Engineering. Her visit to the Madeira School was part of a promotional tour for the upcoming USA Science & Engineering Festival, known as the Nifty Fifty Program, in which top scientists and engineers travel to D.C. area schools "to ignite middle and high school students’ passion for science and engineering."

After energizing the audience by giving away "freebies" that included "Nerd Girls" bouncy-balls and purple IEEE highlighters, Panetta explained to the students just what makes a "Nerd Girl." "I want to dispel the idea that nerds are ugly. Nerds are really cool," she said, joking that "President Obama thinks so too."

She then described the paths her career has taken. Panetta lamented that, like other female scientists, she has faced the "negative stereotypes" of women which are reinforced by the media; she claims the biggest challenge she faced in achieving tenure at Tufts was that "my first day I wore a pink suit and pink high heels…that automatically set the bar lower for me."

Yet despite facing obstacles, Panetta asserted that she has had a rewarding career, telling students "I love helping people, and that’s why I love being an engineer."

After describing her involvement in projects ranging from the construction of a solar-powered car, to the development of an electro-larynx that better mimics the natural voice, Dr. Panetta opened the floor to questions. When asked by senior Caroline Hudson-Hale if she had any advice for students, Dr. Panetta replied, "Connect your passions to science and engineering…. I want you to go for it."

The USA Science & Engineering Festival and Book Fair is a "free, family-friendly expo," hosted by Lockheed Martin, which takes place at D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center from April 28-29.